DOJ Insider Shares Story Behind the Headlines
Assistant Attorney General Tony West loves his job. Serving as the head of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Division has been what he calls an extraordinary privilege. He shared his enthusiasm with a group of University of Chicago Law School students last week as the featured speaker of an American Bar Association membership event, ABA Day on Campus.
“I have to tell you, there’s never been a job at which I’ve worked so hard or that I loved so much,” said West, sharing highlights from his career.
As a political appointee “operating under an expiration date,” West said he is aware that he must make every minute count. So he concentrates on three priorities: pursuing and promoting national security; protecting American taxpayers from fraud; and protecting consumers from financial fraud and other threats to their health and safety.
With more than 1,000 lawyers and 1,400 employees working with him, West described how he runs what is essentially “the federal government’s law firm.”
“There’s scarcely a week that goes by where I don’t deal with a significant, often controversial national security issue,” said West, emphasizing that his division’s primary responsibility is to protect Americans from national security threats. “Nothing we do is more important than this, and we must discharge that responsibility in a manner that respects the rule of law.”
His second priority is to protect public funds from waste and abuse. And he’s been successful. “Since the beginning of this administration, the civil division, working with the nation’s U.S. attorneys, has recovered more than $10 billion in taxpayer funds lost to fraud—the highest fraud recovery in the history of the Department of Justice,” said West.
To put that figure into perspective for the students in the audience, he described how $10 billion could “cover the full three-year tuition for every University of Chicago Law School graduating class for the next four centuries—assuming, of course, no tuition increases.”
West’s third priority is to enlarge the enforcement footprint of the Office of Consumer Protection Litigation (OCPL), which he considers one of the division’s most important affirmative enforcement assets.
“We’ve stepped up our efforts to curb mortgage fraud through greater enforcement,” noted West, “increasing recoveries in housing and mortgage fraud matters from $15 million in 2008 to over $50 million in 2009 and 2010.”
Counterfeit pharmaceutical drugs have also come under OCPL scrutiny. The World Health Organization estimates that more than half of drugs sold online are counterfeit. With an estimated 36 million Americans buying their medications through online pharmacies, stemming the flow of bogus drugs is a great concern for the division. While some of the drugs are simply useless, some counterfeits are actually harmful as well, West warned. “We’ve found drugs sold online that contain rat poison, highway paint and floor wax; pills masquerading as Xanax that contained a substance used to manufacture sheetrock; or so-called Viagra that was actually 85 percent cement.”
Following West’s remarks, Chicago lawyer Robert Clifford, Illinois state delegate to the ABA House of Delegates, moderated a question-and-answer session with the assistant attorney general, who encouraged the law students to consider coming to work for him.
“Even though there is a hiring freeze at the Department of Justice, the Honors Program is not frozen,” said West. “We are always looking for great talent and good law students. If anything you’ve heard today interests you, we would love to have you apply.”
Aside from West’s guidance, students received something else to jump-start their careers: ABA membership, courtesy of Clifford. “I believe that the future of the ABA is in the law schools today and as part of my commitment to the profession and the ABA, I’m personally subsidizing memberships for law students in every law school in the state of Illinois,” he said. Forty-one University of Chicago law students took him up on his offer. To date 436 Illinois law students have signed up for ABA memberships as a result of Clifford’s generosity.
The ABA hosts ABA Day on Campus events at law schools across the country.