Friday, January 3, 2014

2013 - A Year in Review

As 2013 draws to a close and we embark on a New Year, let us take this time to reflect on the events of the past 12 months and look forward to what 2014 holds.

This last year, the Office of Attorney General accomplished a great deal that strengthened the safety and economic security of our communities, helped Rhode Islanders stay in their homes and educated consumers on how to avoid becoming victims of fraud.

We took a major step forward in curbing the rapidly growing use of highly dangerous and unregulated synthetic drugs when the General Assembly passed my legislation making it illegal to manufacture, distribute or possess synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones in Rhode Island.  Often referred to or marketed as “synthetic pot,” “herbal incense,” “spice” and “bath salts,” these drugs are far more dangerous than their naturally-occurring counterparts. These drugs have been known to cause violent or delirious behavior, high blood pressure, vomiting, and also a number of deadly health complications.

Recognizing that dangerous drugs are no longer just found on the street corner, but also in home medicine cabinets, I have continued to bring awareness to the growing epidemic of prescription drug abuse and helped coordinate the statewide Prescription Drug Take Back events held in April and October.  By preventing drug abuse where it often starts – in the home – we can make a real impact on this dangerous and deadly addiction. The Prescription Drug Take Back program is an effective way to protect yourself and your family from potential killers in your medicine cabinet.

Many Rhode Island homeowners saw relief from programs under the National Mortgage Settlement signed in 2012.  By August of this year, it was reported that more than 2,100 homeowners saw relief with their mortgages with principal reductions totaling $153.5 million, which, on average, represents about $72,310 per homeowner. In addition, more than 300 homeowners have seen their mortgages refinanced, with an average rate reduction of 2.2 percent, and an additional 616 homeowners were in the process of refinancing. 

Just a few weeks ago, I signed a settlement agreement with the nation’s fourth largest mortgage service provider, Ocwen, to bring an additional $9.6 million in relief to Rhode Island homeowners.  As noted when I signed the National Mortgage Settlement, the agreement did not end my investigation into foreclosure and mortgage servicing abuses by big banks set on making profits with little concern for homeowners.  It represents my commitment to hold those responsible for the collapse of the housing market and record number of foreclosures accountable for their conduct.

Furthering my commitment to helping Rhode Islanders stay in their homes, the General Assembly passed and the Governor signed my legislation requiring mortgage service providers to participate in good faith in a mediation process administered by a Housing and Urban Development approved independent agency.  The goal of this process is to facilitate an agreement between the lender and homeowner that will avoid a foreclosure.

We have also stepped up our efforts to root out fraud and abuse in our economic safety nets.  Through a partnership with the RI Department of Labor and Training, my Office hired an attorney dedicated to prosecute unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation fraud.  We have had great success with this partnership. And, our Medicaid Fraud Control Unit continues their efforts to make it easier for individuals to report cases of Medicaid fraud with an online, anonymous complaint form. 

We continue to hold government accountable to its citizens.  In 2012, my office, together with the House and the Senate, updated the state’s Access to Public Records Act (“APRA”) making thousands and thousands of new records available.  Each year, my office hosts an Open Government Summit to educate elected leaders, public officials, and the public on the state’s APRA and Open Meetings Act. 

In 2013, our Open Government Unit filed multiple lawsuits on behalf of citizens against public bodies who failed to maintain the highest level of transparency.  Just recently, the Superior Court ordered the Manville Fire District to pay a $5,000 fine, the largest fine in recent memory, for failure to comply with the Open Meetings Act.

Our efforts were recognized when Rhode Island was awarded a number one in the nation ranking from the Better Government Association, a national watchdog group, based on categories including open meetings and freedom of information.

On the consumer protection front, education remains the best tool for consumers to guard against becoming a victim of fraud or identity theft.  Throughout the year, staff from our Consumer Protection Unit conducts more than 150 community outreach seminars, in addition to answering approximately 4,500 phone calls from consumers with questions or those seeking to file a complaint. My commitment to educating consumers is further highlighted by the “Shred-A-Thon events we hold throughout the state as part of Consumer Protection Week. 

In August, I was pleased to host more than 75 prosecutors from across the globe here in Providence at the International Association of Prosecutors North American Regional conference, where global criminal issues such as human trafficking, drug and weapon trafficking and intellectual property theft were discussed.  This conversation led me to sign a memorandum of understanding with the US Department of State committing our prosecutors to train their counterparts in countries around the world on the rule of law and prosecutorial best practices.  This formal relationship building is necessary to combat e complex crimes. Further, this agreement is a testament to the excellent work our prosecutors do each and every day to protect the citizens of this great state.

This is just a brief summary of the many accomplishments and initiatives that the Office of Attorney General in 2013.  Each success I mentioned, and the countless other accomplishments I did not, would not be possible without the very best staff of attorneys, investigators and support staff.  It is the dedication, time, and commitment each employee puts into a criminal case, a consumer question, or a civil lawsuit that makes the Office of Attorney General a state agency that the citizens of this great state can and should be very proud of. I know I am.

The Office is extremely busy every day.  The volume of cases handled by the prosecutors is staggering.  Our criminal division handles more than 4,500 cases annually, prosecuting those who commit crimes to the fullest extent of the law and ensuring justice for the victims is achieved.  It is an awesome responsibility and we are fortunate to have such excellent and compassionate individuals fighting on our behalf.

Moving forward, it remains my mission, my priority, and my goal to provide each citizen of this great state with the opportunity to live and work in a safe and secure community.

On behalf of the entire Office of Attorney General, I wish each of you a happy, healthy and safe New Year.