AG Office Initiatives

By Adam Eisenstein, Visiting Fellow

Oregon’s Civil Rights Unit Focuses on Military Veterans

Around the time of his election in 2008, Oregon Attorney General John Kroger found that the Oregon Department of Justice had no lawyers dedicated to protecting citizens’ civil rights, especially the rights of military veterans. Attorney General Kroger then received permission from the Oregon Legislature in 2009 to create Oregon’s Civil Rights Unit. “Protecting the civil rights of all Oregonians is one of the most important functions of the Oregon Department of Justice,” said Attorney General Kroger. “As a former U.S. Marine, I am particularly proud of the work our Civil Rights Unit has done on behalf of Oregon veterans.”

The Civil Rights Unit, comprised of one lawyer and one investigator, performs outreach to veterans’ groups and addresses service member complaints about unlawful employment practices. This unit is a central part of Attorney General Kroger’s overall initiative to better protect veterans and their families. The initiative is divided into three main components: employment rights, consumer protections, and military families. Oregon protects veterans’ employment rights mainly through enforcement of federal statutes, most notably the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA). Under the USERRA, an employer must credit deployed service members with hours of work that would have been performed if they were physically present at their place of employment. Because of a well-defined USERRA protection, called the Escalator Principle, service members must be reinstated to their positions at the salary and benefit levels that they would have attained but for their military duties. Oregon recently passed a law very similar to USERRA, but with several advantages: fewer conditions that a service member must satisfy before being eligible, extending protections to include veterans (and not just active duty service members), giving state watchdog agencies, such as the Oregon DOJ and the Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI) an enforcement role to defend Oregon veterans, and more options for veterans to pursue remedies.

Under Oregon law, the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs has authority to enforce state and federal laws on behalf of service members. In a recent case, Oregon National Guard members lodged numerous complaints about their employer, Fred Meyer Stores, alleging that Fred Meyer Stores had failed to credit pay raises and pension benefits that accrued during the period of their service in the Middle East. As a result of negotiations between Fred Meyer and the Civil Rights Unit, Fred Meyer agreed to fully compensate qualifying service members with step increases and credit towards their pension benefits, as well as further agreeing to change its practices going forward.

Although protecting the general public from consumer fraud is a top priority in itself for Attorney General Kroger, the Oregon DOJ can be an especially-strong advocate for protecting military members and their families from fraudulent practices. New Oregon laws make it unlawful for any retailer to knowingly take economic advantage of a deployed or disabled veteran or their spouse. These same laws give the Oregon DOJ jurisdiction to enforce the federal Servicepersons Civil Relief Act (SCRA), which provides added protection from consumer fraud for service members. SCRA covers such areas as insurance, homeownership issues, and judicial proceedings against active members of the military.

Lastly, families of deployed military members receive assistance from the Oregon DOJ through the Oregon Child Support System. This system helps ensure military families and their children have access to veterans and other benefits, as well as several other initiatives aimed at making it easier for military members to take care of their families back home. Although enforcing child support obligations is a central part of the Child Support System, it is not a necessary part of families receiving help from the Oregon DOJ.

Rhode Island Establishes Business Task Force

To help combat his state’s current economic woes, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin created the Rhode Island Business Task Force this year. Comprised of local business leaders from a wide variety of industries, the Task Force is meant to identify ways in which the Attorney General’s Office can help spur growth in the Rhode Island economy.

During Attorney General Kilmartin’s 2010 campaign for office, citizens approached him and asked what he would do, if elected, to help the state emerge from the current recession. Although the Attorney General traditionally does not play a role in economic development, Attorney General Kilmartin felt it was “incumbent upon all elected leaders to help move Rhode Island in the right direction and to advocate for policies that result in a stronger economy.”[1] Attorney General Kilmartin hopes that the Task Force, comprised of 24 organizations and individuals from companies of all sizes covering such sectors as finance, insurance and manufacturing, will play a role in creating jobs and improving the state economy. Regardless of the Attorney General’s Office’s past involvement in economic matters, the theme of the Task Force became whether anything could be done going forward.

“Rhode Island is made up primarily of small businesses that serve as the driving force behind our economy. Too many of our small businesses are struggling to stay afloat in this economic climate,” said Attorney General Kilmartin. “It is my goal to provide a venue for our business leaders to learn how the Office, from a law enforcement perspective, can assist in ensuring their success. I have made it a priority to work on behalf of the business community with other state agencies, including the Division of Taxation, the Department of Labor & Training, the Department of Business Regulation, among others, to aggressively prosecute those who break the business, financial and labor laws of our state. A level playing field is just as critical as economic development and tax policy to retaining and attracting businesses to the state.”

Among the top priorities will be fighting public corruption, curtailing the local underground economy, prosecuting businesses and individuals who engage in fraudulent activities, and streamlining regulatory requirements to create a clearer business environment for Rhode Island companies. Often, these goals will be approached by addressing the small and obvious issues, so-called “low-hanging fruit.”

As the Attorney General’s Office has complete criminal jurisdiction in Rhode Island, criminal prosecutions are sure to be at least one tool used to reach these goals. One job for the Task Force is to identify laws that are already on the books that are not being properly implemented. For example, Rhode Island businesses must obtain licenses before beginning operations, but those licenses are not being revoked as part of enforcement proceedings. The Task Force also aims to issue concrete policy recommendations and propose legislation. Furthermore, the Task Force allows anyone to email in suggestions for helping the economy through the Attorney General’s website, and solicits input on the Attorney General’s Twitter account.

[1] Business Task Force Home Page - http://www.riag.ri.gov/business/index.php

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ADAM EISENSTEIN.