Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dept. of Education's SWAT Team Story - Insider from the Department of Education Comments?

There are a number of higher education policy experts who share their thoughts on AEM. Congressional aides and student advocate groups also spend time on here. The comments from these individuals are oftentimes intriguing, especially when they suggest that the person is responding from an institutional perspective.

Last week a story that originally aired on News10 in Stockton, California caught my eye. I was not the only one to pounce on the clip about the alleged Department of Education's S.W.A.T. Kenneth Wright had his door destroyed at approximately 6 AM. The story also sparked a curious response from a reader.

Recap of the Stockton events

[Note: If you've been following this story closely, skip ahead to the section entitled, "Reader's Curious Remarks"]

After his door was broken down, Wright was then handcuffed in his boxers and shoved into the back of a patrol car for 6 hours. News10 initially showed Wright saying, "pay back your student loans [or the Department of Education's S.W.A.T. team will break down your door]." The clip has since been changed, and the news station rewrote the story and focused on the question of excessive force.

It turns out the agents had a warrant for Wright's estranged wife. Wright claims he has no criminal record and has since hired an attorney.

Wright's children, ages 3, 9, 11 were also at home when this incident occurred. (UPDATE: The original story mistakenly stated that his children were 3, 7, and 11).

AEM was one of many blogs to break the story and spread the news about Wright's experience. I followed the updates from the station and exchanged emails with them. In addition, I wrote a piece for USA Today about the incident and also spoke with a Press Officer at the Department of Education. (Links below are listed in chronological order and show the way in which the story unfolded)., FutureMajority, and Crooks & Liars picked up my work and also commented on my analysis. I want to thank those outlets and groups for providing their readers with information about the situation.

Reader's Curious Remarks

On June 9th at 11:16 PM, a reader responded to my piece, "Viral Wildfires: Terrified Debtors Spread The Word About Department of Education's SWAT Team," and was surprised by my response to this show of enforcement. It is my view that the agents used excessive force in this situation.

Here's what they said (truncated version):
Cryn, you have been a consistent voice citing the lack of oversight of the financial aid programs by federal officials, including at Educ. Dept. and FSA. One would think that, of anyone out there, you would be the one cheering this aggressive raid loudly at the top of lungs. For months you have been saying that the Educ. Dept. is essentially captive of the educational sector and has completely dropped the ball on oversight, enforcement and compliance -- essentially letting postsecondary institutions run wild, without regulation. Whether it is for-profit or non-profit colleges, the lack of enforcement has been a running theme.
This is what enforcement looks like. One of the major focuses is ginned-up scams to obtain Pell Grants and Stafford loans. Granted, there is probably too much focus on $5 million schemes, rather than $500 million schemes. That is political reality, though, to go after those who don't have lobbyists backing them up in Washington. However, there is certainly never going to be the move on the large potatoes when the blogosphere is ridiculing even the most basic enforcement efforts.
Surely, borrowers would be much better off if the Educ. Dept. had put a top 10 college and a top 10 lender out of business in 2005. While a few hundred students and borrowers would likely have had their lives disrupted for a semester or two, the lives of millions of students and borrowers could have been brightened in the years subsequent, as colleges and lenders cleaned up their act, motivated by the fear of aggressive enforcement.
To get a historically politically-weak agency up to where it can effectively police the wrongdoers, whether large institutions or small gangs of financial aid scam artists, the organizational prestige needs to be raised to the level of agencies such as Labor (OSHA, etc.), DoD, DHS, Treasury, FBI, and so on [my emphasis].
To accomplish your stated goals, what is needed is 'viral wildfire' supporting aggressive raids, not ridiculing them . . . A cursory review of the last couple decades of OIG semiannual reports would indicate a consistent effort to move against the financial aid scam artists, including those who embezzle federal funds. Many of these perps were not attempting to attend college; the programs were simply a source of illgotten cash for them. What is wrong with attempting to arrest and prosecute them? The enforcement efforts against small for-profits have also been consistent. It would certainly be better if the Educ. Dept. and FSA also were as tough on larger institutions, including colleges, guarantors and lenders, but why throw the baby out with the bath water and abandon all enforcement efforts?

Where to begin? For starters, there is no reason why I should be applauding this action. That would be like saying that if the Feds somehow broken down the door of some banker from Wall Street and, let's say, eventually arrested him for fraud, we should understand this to be some sort of victory. Meanwhile, business as usual continues on Wall Street and everyone continues to be royally screwed by an unjust system. Unless a citizen is armed and threatening to kill people, there is no reason whatsoever for this show of force. That is why so many people were outraged. And I frankly don't care if Wright is part of a larger group of people embezzling money or involved in other fraudulent activities. He shouldn't have been treated like that, and his children shouldn't have been subjected to that inappropriate show of force.

The writer clearly believes that the Education Department is too weak to take on the powerful and the way to build up strength is to go after the small fry first, as if that is going to scare the big institutions and lenders.  Others might say that going after only the little scams just emboldens the big ones.

The writer also is jumping ahead of the known facts.  Maybe this is indeed small-fry fraud, but that was not how it was first reported by the television station and why it got so much publicity.  For a day or two it looked as if it were a collection effort. That is precisely why so many people were drawn to the story, and expressed a great deal of fear about the possibility of the same thing happening to them. It is not a great leap to think that collectors could come and break down a door at 6 in the morning.

Here's another take. Let's assume this reader has or does work for the Department of Education. (They certainly sound like an insider of sorts - at least to me). If this is an insider writing to me, it shows that the Department internally does not think it can effectively enforce the law against the politically connected, and may even have given up trying.

Related Links

"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

"Pay your student loans or else," Future Majority, June 8, 2011

AEM Coverage

Update III, June 9, 2011


Steven S. Mellnick said...

Ah yes, because crack downs on the small time fraud is what is going to scare the institutions perpetuating the much larger scam. Welcome to the next 'War on "insert something here"'. How exactly is that working out on any of the declared fronts? Drugs? Terrorism? Crime? Wall-Street Fraud?

This is different on many levels from the above cited politically motivated 'wars'. American society as a whole are creating an indentured servant class with the burden of such debt. This issue is beyond the "left" or "right" rhetoric.

The question to ask now is this: What is it going to take to get people off the side-lines and into the fight? (Fight as in sounding off in a reasonable and rational manner, not French Revolution part II)

The politicians will listen, we just have to bring the pressure. (Fund raising, campaigning, lobbying, etc.)

Honestly, what is it going to take?

Cryn Johannsen said...

Steven - you're singing my tune. Here's what I say: Basta! Basta!

I don't want a French Rev. Part Deux.

But it's time to organize and change this nonsense. We're ready. We're preparing. We're talking about serious and REAL change.

Let's talk?

Anonymous said...

Steven dont fool yourself, Politicians dont usually listen unless it is something that affects them personally. If you were to vote to takethere benefits away and have them use the new health care plan. you think they would listen? Heck ya because it affects them personally

Cryn Johannsen said...

Is Steven really 'fooling' himself?

Steven S. Mellnick said...

Actions speak louder than words. I am a believer in that political activism begins locally. As far as 'directly affecting them': they're elected officials. Get them out of office.

For instance: Local politician voted against a coal-powered electrical plant in the western portion of the state. I warned her not to, explaining that I would not back her in the next election cycle. Her opponent the following year was very viable, I threw my support (money, sign placement locations, and advocated within my circle) and ta-da, my horse won.

Small steps, a nudge here, a nudge is only the beginning.

Have an entire year for the major elections, 4-5 months for some state/locals....Would be amazed at what just a little 'nudge' accomplishes.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't this tie-in with that Dept of Ed bid out for Remington short-shotguns? Sheesh! Maybe they will come 'n git ya'!

But your Reader Curious is an idiot. Using his logic, he'd be rounding up college presidents and trustees in their boxer-shorts. Hm ... not a bad idea -- given the magnitude of this scam.

Meri said...

It always amazes me how the Wall St.elitists have a way of turning things around. It's not that they're ripping us off--poor people are ripping us off, they'll tell us. We're supposed to get angry at poor college students forced to take out loans (as that's the "financial aid" they're offered, at welfare moms, at the unemployed who are "purposely" not getting jobs, at people who are losing their homes because they can't afford their mortgages, etc. .

On another note: I lived in Calif for a while and was surprised by what a police state it was. I'd moved there 'cause I thought it was a liberal state, thought there'd be a lot of hippies and a laid back atmosphere. (Okay, I guess I'd seen some old movies.)

What a shock it was to me, though, when I witnessed so much police brutality, social injustice and abuse of power over the people--moreso than in any other part of the US I'd been to. And I've traveled through most of the country. In Cali, police helicopters fly along the streets, over homes and apt bldgs and shine surveillance lights into people's homes (presumably to search for gang members.) They can see inside your bedroom (no joke!) I also saw cops driving by in their cars and videotaping innocent people on the street. If you appear to be poor, and, heaven forbid, are walking in the city of Los Angeles--watch out! I witnessed people being approached and arrested for just not carrying an ID--people who were doing nothing wrong but sitting on a public bench somewhere. I believe this was part of an effort to harass the homeless. I once stood on a public street waiting for a friend who was coming to pick me up and within minutes noticed a police car circling around me. I worried I'd get arrested for "loitering" so I had to go inside the building and wait for my friend there.

It was that atmosphere of fear and just a sense that walking or congregating in any public place was almost against the law that created a lot of stress for me as I really enjoy walking. When I talked with native Californians, many told me that Calif had always been like that, a police state, but I suspect it's gotten much worse in recent years, thanks to our friend, The Patriot Act.

Anyhow, I found the surveillance atmosphere to be disturbing enough to me that I needed to move out. California is not the liberal state people think it is. Maybe it used to be but, apparently, that has changed. I think that raids like this probably happen all the time in California, but we just don't always hear about them as most of the time the victims are poor and unable or unwilling to speak out.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to add in response to Steven:
The people of Wisconsin voted for Scott Walker, tea party candidate. They only got upset when they saw how his policies might affect them personally. Part of our problem is that many Americans really don't care unless they themselves are suffering. What's the point in contacting our politicians when the majority of Americans are still ready and willing to vote against their own best interest?