Yesterday morning few people were aware of what had happened to Kenneth Wright's rights in Stockton, California. Thanks to the hard work of numerous advocates, however, that changed within hours of a local news story about the use of excessive force.
People across the country - and even the globe (my own work was being retweeted by people in Stockholm and London) - learned that Wright's door was broken down by federal agents, he was handcuffed in his underwear, and thrown into a patrol car for 6 hours. Although the initial report from News10 suggested that the warrant for Wright's estranged wife was for her defaulted federal loans, the story quickly changed over the course of the day. (News10 took the story down once it went viral and has provided an updated version that discusses the use of excessive force. There is no mention of defaulted loans. In addition, News10 released the warrant that indicates that fraud was being committed. However, it is truncated and the entire warrant remains sealed).
It is common knowledge among higher education finance experts that the Department of Education's Office of Inspector's General (OIG) conducts search warrants. Moreover, these cases, as Press Officer Sara Gast explained to me in a recent email, are generally related to investigations of "bribery, fraud, and embezzlement of federal student aid funds." Such investigations are generally limited, Gast told me, to 30 - 35 search warrants a year. But the general public is not privy to this type of activity. (When I followed up with Gast by phone, she provided me with Press Secretary Justin Hamilton's direct line. As of this writing, a call from Hamilton has not been returned).
While Wright's estranged wife may be involved in fraudulent activity, there are two crucial points about this unfolding story. First, it spread like wildfire throughout the blogosphere because it was fueled by fear. Bloggers on the left and the right picked up on the story, and that led to major media outlets putting out reports, too. There is good reason for why it became so hotly discussed. There is a growing number of indentured educated citizens who are fast approaching financial disaster. Thousands and thousands of them have shared their stories with me over the past 2 years. The use of force by the Department resonated with countless readers. Many of them wrote on Facebook pages and tweeted, "It's scary. What if that happened to me?" . . . "I'm close to defaulting on my loans. Will the Department break down my door?"
We all know that there is no way out of this debt, especially if you fall on hard times. The system has been rigged in such a way that allows companies, like Sallie Mae, to benefit from keeping people in debt. Sallie Mae has $146 billion of federal loans on its books. One analyst said, "They have this cash cow which is the legacy portfolio." Hear that, folks? They are making money off of indentured educated people! Make no mistake - they don't want this 'cash cow' to go away. No one talks about the fact that FFELP is still alive. The administration might have put an end to it, but those loans are still out there and part of these loan sharks' portfolios. So, if you default on any federal loans, you're life is pretty much ruined, whereas the IRS has the power to resolve issues with distressed taxpayers. Both parties can come up with a solution and move on. Student debtors have no such luck. But since we're seen as a 'cash cow,' why would anyone in power want that to change? I'm sure those guys over at Sallie Mae , who live in luxurious mansions, on the East Coast don't want this to change. Neither do the schools. They all control the money, whereas the rest of us are victims of these hucksters. But I digress.
Second, the use of such excessive force was uncalled for. Why an individual who is being sought for fraud warrants a SWAT team -- as it was originally reported -- suggests how far right this country has moved. Wright must have been traumatized when he was handcuffed in his underwear and thrown into a patrol car for 6 hours. His children, who are 3, 7, and 11, had to have been disturbed by the incident as well.
Moreover, this story has fueled numerous and ongoing conspiracy theories. But the elements of the story, along with a great deal of speculation (which was justified), lent themselves to that. It should come as no surprise since the characteristics of American conspiracy theorists are the same as Christian fundamentalists. Fear is also what adds fuel to conspiracy theorists' fire. (They also the need to simplify complex situations. In addition, conspiracy theorists oftentimes - not always - fail to comprehend systemic issues and place too much emphasis on individual agency. Mind you, I am not suggesting that conspiracy theorists are unintelligent, but I do wish to make clear that I do not identify with this type of thinking).
One thing is clear, regardless of how you think or how you identify yourself politically, the Department is tone deaf and reviled across the board. They are as hated, as I've already stated, as Sallie Mae. I had always thought that, but yesterday's outrage drove that home. If they don't get it together, along with the politicians and self-interested lobbyists in DC, we might very well experience a revolution in this country as well. People don't like it when they feel that their future has been stolen from them. A lot of folks want their future back. DC better start listening . . .
We know what democracy means. We won't settle for economic slavery.
If warranted I will provide more updates on this story.
"Pay your debt or else! SWAT Team Visits Loan Defaulter -- UPDATED," Crooks and Liars, Nicole Belle, June 9, 2011
"The Department of Education Means Business," The American Conservative, June 9, 2011
"U.S. Education officials let for-profit colleges and 'universities' off easy, but beat down innocent consumer's door, handcuff him for six hours," U.S. PIRG Consumer Blog, June 9, 2011
"Does the Department of Education have a SWAT team?," USAToday, June 8, 2011
"Pay your student loans or else," Future Majority, June 8, 2011
"Education Department S.W.A.T. team raids California home," Washington Post Blog, June 8, 2011
Breaking News: Copy of the Warrant!, June 9, 2011
UPDATE The Department of Education S.W.A.T. Team Fiasco, June 9, 2011
Yesterday, the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General executed a search warrant at a Stockton, Calif., residence with the presence of local law enforcement authorities.
While it was reported in local media that the search was related to a defaulted student loan, that is incorrect. This is related to a criminal investigation. The Inspector General’s Office does not execute search warrants for late loan payments.
Because this is an ongoing criminal investigation, we can’t comment on the specifics of the case. We can say that the OIG’s office conducts about 30-35 search warrants a year on issues such as bribery, fraud, and embezzlement of federal student aid funds.