Political Minutes: Eric Holder speaks at WLF

Thursday evening, as part of the World Leaders Forum, United States Attorney General Eric Holder came home to Columbia to speak under Low's rotunda. The Columbia College and Columbia Law alum first spoke about the Department of Justice’s efforts to fight financial fraud before he participated in a question and answer session with Columbia president Lee C. Bollinger where Holder discussed a wide range of issues from Holder’s time at Columbia to the upcoming Supreme Court Texas affirmative action case. In his prepared comments, Holder cited various convictions and settlements that the Department of Justice has won against corruption in financial institutions, including the recent 25 billion dollar settlement of five major banks for foreclosure abuses.

Throughout the evening, Holder elaborated on how Americans are not very aware of the Department of Justice’s work. In his prepared comments, Holder highlighted the department’s success in fighting health care fraud, saying, “for every dollar we spend combating health care fraud, we return seven dollars.”

Transitioning into a larger discussion on fraud in the financial industry, Holder continued, “The perception that we have not been as aggressive as we should be [in combating financial fraud] is extremely dangerous.” Bollinger and Holder also discussed the difficulties of prosecuting within complex financial systems. Although Holder agreed with Bollinger that “the smartest people in the country go to law school,” he also said that the smart business school graduates and financiers “go right to the line” in terms of the legality of their financial interactions.

During the Q&A session, Bollinger asked Holder about an issue pertinent to both men – the affirmative action case recently granted certiorari by the Supreme Court, Fisher vs. Texas. Bollinger, using simply Grutter to refer to the landmark University of Michigan affirmative action case that bears his name, asked Holder about the upcoming case that “seems worrisome.” Holder stated that Bollinger’s description of the Court’s granting cert “as ominous” was not inappropriate, noting that not much has changed in the nine years since Grutter. Holder explained that the question he asks in response to discussion of a possible end to affirmative action is, “At what point do we start the clock?,” the question of when minorities truly achieved guaranteed equal rights under the law.

“I can’t imagine a time when the need for diversity will ever cease,” said Holder, noting he had experienced the value of a diverse educational environment at Columbia. In response to a question about whether detainees at Guantanamo Bay would ever be brought to justice, Holder answered that the Department of Justice has been prevented from prosecuting the detainees because “Congress won’t let us.”

To other audience questions, Holder affirmed his opposition to torture, including waterboarding, and expressed disappointment that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was not tried in the “tough city” of New York. At the end of the question and answer session Holder remembered his former history professor Dwight Minor, saying that at a party at Minor’s house he recalled “getting kind of a buzz and we waxed poetic about European history.” In another fond recollection of his times as a Columbia undergrad, Holder said, “We didn’t take finals ‘til senior year” because of protests.

The event, which had an interesting mix of Columbia alumni friendliness and serious legal and political discourse, ended with Holder saying he hopes his Justice Department is remembered not only for their tries, but their successes in fighting for justice.