Tag: doj

Getting Government Out of the Mortgage Business, DOJ-Style

Yesterday Bloomberg reported that Federal Housing Administration (FHA) purchase loan guarantees “plunged” compared to a year ago. Part of that plunge, of course, was an expected decline in refinance activity. Currently, FHA endorsement activity is almost 80 percent purchase, whereas a year it ago it was just over half for purchase. Looking at trends in purchase endorsements, the decline looks a lot more moderate.

Even so, there has been a modest decline. Many in the banking industry, as expressed to Bloomberg, believe this is because FHA and the U.S. Deparment of Justice have been too tough on lenders, making them take back soured loans and assessing damages. JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon recently asked, because of the legal risk, “should we [JP Morgan] be in the FHA business at all?” 

Personally, this sounds like little more than jawboning. As illustrated by FHA’s recent credit reports, lenders are still dumping an awful lot of junk onto FHA. The average credit score is around a 680 FICO, meaning about half of FHA’s recent business is subprime. Beyond that, even subprime borrowers typically face downpayments of only around 5%, and then there’s the high debt levels witnessed. Lenders should be held responsible for making loans of such poor credit quality.

If DOJ fines on poorly performing FHA loans are chasing banks away from FHA, then I say “great.” That’s one of the reasons I helped get FHA new powers against fraud back in 2008 (see Section 2129 of HERA). As Congress is unlikely to ever scale bank the various mortgage subsidies, perhaps our only hope is that DOJ makes those subsidies so unattractive that lenders won’t use them. But then I could also see DOJ sue lenders, under fair-lending, for not using FHA.

DOJ vs. School Choice

Claiming that private schools in Milwaukee are discriminating against students with disabilities, the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) demanding that private schools participating in the Milwaukee school choice program comply with Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act. As Professor Patrick Wolf explains over at Education Next, the DOJ is wrong on the facts and wrong on the law.

Wolf is part of a team of researchers that has studied the Milwaukee school choice program over five years. Their statistical analysis “confirmed that no measure of student disadvantage—not disability status, not test scores, not income, not race—was statistically associated with whether or not an 8th grade voucher student was or was not admitted to a 9th grade voucher-receiving private school.” This is exactly what the law requires. Wisconsin law forbids discrimination on the basis of disability and requires schools participating in the voucher program to accept students on a random basis. 

Moreover, the DOJ is wrong on the law in treating private schools participating in the program as though they were government contractors. As Wolf explains:

Private organizations normally are exempt from Title II of ADA but the DOJ argues that the law applies to private schools in the MPCP because the government is contracting with them to provide a public service (the education of K-12 students). This claim flies in the face of the facts and case-law surrounding the program. The voucher program does not involve any contracts, of any kind, between any government organization and the participating private schools. Students need to meet certain eligibility restrictions to participate in the program, as do interested private schools. Once both are deemed eligible by the state, students choose schools and government funds flow to the private schools based on the choices families have made and consistent with the laws governing the program, not based on any “contract.” In fact, the Wisconsin State Statute that governs the MPCP, §119.23, is entirely separate from Wisconsin State Statute §119.235 entitled “Contracts with Private Schools and Agencies.” Nothing could make the point clearer that the MPCP is not a case of government contracting for education services.

Wolf suspects that the DOJ’s letter came as a result of the Wisconsin DPI’s report that 1.6 percent of choice students have a disability. Since the DPI is not authorized to collect that information, they estimated the number of students with disabilities using the number of choice students given accommodations on the state accountability exam. However, as Wolf explains, that is a highly flawed proxy since only a minority of students with disabilities are given such accommodations. Wolf’s team of researchers estimated that the number of choice students with disabilities between 7.5 and 14.6 percent, with their best estimate being 11.4 percent.

The DOJ’s overreach may be unsurprising in light of other recent scandals, but it also sets a terrible precedent. Parents choosing to use their vouchers at private educational institutions do not render those institutions “government contractors” any more than grocery stores become “government contractors” when citizens use their EBT cards to purchase food there. The Obama administration’s unlawful and misguided attempt to hamper school choice programs with additional red tape should be vigorously resisted.

What the Manual by DOJ’s Top Intelligence Lawyer Says About the FISA Amendments Act

To a casual observer, debates about national security spying can seem like a hopeless game of he-said/she-said. Government officials and congressional surveillance hawks characterize the authorities provided by measures like the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 in one way, while paranoid civil libertarians like me tell a more unsettling story. Who can say who’s right?

Fortunately, there is an authoritative unclassified source that explains what the law means: the revised 2012 edition of National Security Investigations and Prosecutions by David S. Kris (who headed the Justice Department’s National Security Division from 2009–2011) and J. Douglas Wilson. As the definitive (unclassified) treatise on what foreign intelligence surveillance law says, means, and permits, it’s the same resource you’d expect the government attorneys who apply for surveillance authority to consult for guidance on what the law does and doesn’t allow spy agencies to do. Let’s see what it says about the scope of surveillance authorized by the FAA:

[The FAA’s] certification provision states that the government under Section 1881a is “not required to identify the specific facilities, places premises, or property at which an acquisition … will be directed or conducted.” This is a significant grant of authority, because it allows for authorized acquisition—surveillance or a search—directed at any facility or location. For example, an authorization targeting “al Qaeda”—which is a non-U.S. person located abroad—could allow the government to wiretap any telephone that it believes will yield information from or about al Qaeda, either because the telephone is registered to a person whom the government believes is affiliated with al Qaeda, or because the government believes that the person communicates with others who are affiliated with al Qaeda, regardless of the location of the telephone. Unless the FISC attempts to address the issue under the rubric of minimization, no judge will contemporaneously review the government’s choice of facilities or places at which to direct acquisition. [….] Review of the certification is limited to the question “whether [it] contains all the required elements”; the FISC does not look behind the government’s assertion’s. Thus, for example, the FISC could not second-guess the government’s foreign intelligence purpose of conducting the acquisition, as long as the certification in fact asserts such a purpose.

Got that? The requirement that surveillance have a foreign “target” is satisfied if the general purpose of a wiretap program is to gather information about a foreign group like al Qaeda, and it employs procedures designed for that purpose. It does not mean that the particular phone numbers or e-mail accounts or other “facilities” targeted for surveillance have to belong to a foreigner: those could very well belong to an American citizen located within the United States, and no court or judge is required to approve or review the choice of which individuals to tap.

Kris and Wilson elaborate in a discussion of surveillance under the Protect America Act, the stopgap legislation that preceded the FAA, explaining how the language of the law could be exploited to conduct what most of us would think of as domestic surveillance despite the nominal requirement of a “foreign” target:

The concern was that the government could be said to “direct” surveillance at the entity abroad, but still monitor communications on a facility used (or used exclusively) by an individual U.S. person in this country. Indeed, the government in the recent past had taken the position that surveillance of a U.S. person’s home and mobile telephones was “directed at” al Qaeda, not at the U.S. person himself. Applied to the PAA, this logic seemed to allow surveillance of Americans’ telephones and e-mail accounts, inside the United States, without adherence to traditional FISA, as long as the government could persuade itself that the surveillance was indeed “directed” at al Qaeda or another foreign power that was reasonably believed to be abroad. When confronted with these concerns the government explicitly equated the PAA’s “directed at” standard with FISA’s “targeting” standard, meaning that acquisition was “directed” at an entity when the government was trying to acquire information from or about that entity.

More importantly for present purposes, the government’s equation of the “targeting” and “directed at” standards meant that concerns raised about the PAA applied equally to the FAA, which (as discussed above) authorizes acquisition “targeting” a “person” reasonably believed to be abroad, and explicitly adopts traditional FISA’s broad definition of the term “person.” The concern was that the government could use Section 1881a for an acquisition “targeting” al Qaeda, but “directed” at a facility or place used (or used exclusively) by John Smith, a U.S. person located in the United States, for Smith’s domestic communications. [Emphasis added.]

As Kris and Wilson note, Congress ultimately added a further limitation designed to allay such concerns, but it did not do so by prohibiting any flagging of Americans’ e-mail accounts or phone lines for interception and recording without a warrant. That is still allowed—though “minimization procedures” are then supposed to limit the retention and use of such information.

What Congress prohibited instead was the use of FAA surveillance to “intentionally acquire any communication as to which the sender and all intended recipients are known at the time of acquisition to be located in the United States.” But as Kris and Wilson point out, this restriction  “is imperfect because location is difficult to determine in the modern world of communications, and the restriction applies only when the government ‘knows’ that the communication is domestic.”

So to review: under the FAA, a court approves general procedures for surveillance “targeting” a foreign group. But the court does not approve or (necessarily) review any intelligence agency’s own discretionary determination about which specific people’s e-mail addresses, phone lines, or online accounts should be flagged for interception in order to gather information about that foreign group. The government’s past arguments indicate that it believes it may spy on the accounts or phones of individual American citizens located in the United States under an authorization to gather information about a foreign “target.” All the law requires is that they not intentionally record the American’s calls and e-mails when they are are known in advance to be to or from another American.

Remember: this isn’t my interpretation of the law. This isn’t speculation from someone at the American Civil Liberties Union or the Electronic Frontier Foundation about how the government might try to read the statute. This a legal reference text written by the lawyer who, until quite recently, ran the show at DOJ when it came to FISA surveillance. The next time you hear a member of Congress declare that the FAA has nothing to do with eavesdropping on Americans, ask yourself who is more likely to have  an accurate understanding of what the law really says.

Why Roger Clemens—And John Edwards—Beat the Feds

At Forbes, Daniel Fisher asks a former federal official whether a thread connects the failed white-collar prosecutions of the onetime presidential candidate and the baseball great. Yes, as a matter of fact, there might: “Jurors could be sending a message to Washington they don’t like the awesome firepower of the Justice Dept. brought to bear on borderline cases without an obvious victim.”

Immigration Law Ruling Half-Right But Crucially Wrong

The ruling demonstrates the problems the federal government creates when it fails to either enforce or reform our immigration laws.  Judge Bolton’s hyper-technical decision – anybody who tells you this case was black-and-white isn’t a serious lawyer – got it half-right: She correctly upheld most of SB 1070 and correctly struck down two sections of SB 1070 (a small part of section 5 and all of section 6), but incorrectly struck down two other sections (2 and 3).

One of the latter, section 2 – requiring police to determine the immigration status of persons they stop, detain, or arrest if they have a reasonable suspicion that said persons are unlawfully in the United States – is the most controversial part of SB 1070 and also the most controversial part of the ruling.  Judge Bolton construed section 2 as conflicting with federal law because it burdens federal resources and impedes federal agency functions, but how can it do that when the resources and agency functions in question are already (supposed to be) devoted to immigration enforcement?  The government’s decision not to enforce its own laws can’t possibly preempt a state law that merely mirrors those laws – laws the federal the government is charged with enforcing.

SB 1070 is a valiant attempt to deal with the breakdown in the rule of law caused by so many people living in the legal shadows.  While it’s not the best public policy – because it diverts law enforcement resources, divides police from their communities, burdens lawful residents, and ultimately harms the economy – it’s a frustrated citizenry’s perfectly understandable response to government failure.  Probably the best thing to come out of this whole episode – which isn’t over by any stretch – is that it thrusts the debate over comprehensive immigration reform into the forefront of national political debates.  This is a tough and nuanced issue that will end up in the Supreme Court again and again if Congress neglects to act.

Contempt of (Secret) Court?

At last week’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on the PATRIOT Act, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) raised an interesting question I haven’t seen discussed much: What happens to someone who willfully violates an order of the highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court? (FISA)

Generally, courts have the right to enforce their own orders by finding those who disobey in contempt, and a line from a rare public version of an opinion issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review suggests that the same holds here, noting that a service provider who challenged the (now superseded) Protect America Act “began compliance under threat of civil contempt.” (There is, interestingly, some redacted text immediately following that.) Contempt proceedings normally fall to the court that issued the original order.

A finding of civil contempt will typically result in the incarceration of the offending party until they agree to comply—and on the theory that the person “holds the keys to their own cell,” because they’ll be released as soon as they fall in line, normal due process rules don’t apply here. Of course, there are ways of violating the order that make it impossible to comply after the fact, such as breaching the gag rule that prevents people from disclosing that they’ve been served with orders, or (getting extreme now) destroying the records or “tangible things” sought via a Section 215 order. In those cases, presumably, the only recourse would be criminal contempt, for which you’re supposed to be entitled to a jury trial if the penalty is “serious” and involves more than six months incarceration.

That obviously raises some interesting problems given the extraordinarily secret nature of the FISA Court. In the public version of the opinion I linked above, the name of the petitioner and all identifying details are redacted, even the ruling was released six months after it was handed down, so as to avoid tipping off targets about specific providers that have received orders.

Now, I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume we’re not at the point of “disappearing” folks off our own streets, but it is a puzzle how you’d actually carry out enforcement and penalty, if it ever came to that, consistent with the secrecy demanded in these investigations.

More Politicization of the Department of Justice

At the last election, Democrats complained mightily of George Bush’s having politicized the Department of Justice: firing prosecutors, suborning legal memos justifying an expansion of executive power, etc., etc.  Well, it now seems at best that the pot was calling the kettle an abuser of power.

Early in the administration, when the DC Voting Rights Act last made the news cycle, it came out that newly confirmed AG Eric Holder sought a second opinion from the acting solicitor general when the Office of Legal Counsel affirmed its 45-year position that giving DC residents representation in Congress could not be done without amending the Constitution.  The bill is now stuck because of an amendment that was added to it relaxing the District’s strict – even after Heller – gun regulations, but this issue will resurface.

Now, in the most recent development in the “Is Hillary Clinton Constitutional?” saga the OLC reversed its own position from 1987 just in time for federal prosecutors to file a motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging Clinton’s appointment that cites the new memo (see footnote 21).  Indeed, the motion was filed the same day Acting Assistant Attorney General David Barron – who had previously rebuffed Holder on the DC Voting Rights Act (though we still have to see what the next confirmed OLC head says, be that Dawn Johnsen or someone else) – signed the new OLC memo.

The issue is that Clinton’s appointment to the cabinet – as well as that of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar – violates the Emoluments (sometimes called Ineligibility) Clause of Article I, section 6 because both she and Salazar were sitting Senators when cabinet salaries were increased.  Congress later passed short laws reversing these raises for the duration of both officials’ tenures but, as I’ve argued previously – and as OLC head Chuck Cooper spelled out in the 1987 memo – there is no “net accounting” proviso which somehow erases the constitutional defect.  While the new memo relies heavily on historical practice – several presidents going back to William Howard Taft (most recently Bill Clinton in appointing Lloyd Bentsen to be Treasury Secretary) have proceeded in this manner – the fact that political branches have acted in a certain way doesn’t speak to the constitutionality of that action.

In short, again the Obama Justice Department has found a politically expedient way of dealing with pesky constitutional issues.  In this case, that way involved issuing a memo to buttress a motion being filed that very same day in federal court.

H/T: Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, which is involved in the suit challenging Clinton’s appointment.