Federal agents arrest man for unpaid student loans

In a country where 40 million people owe upward of $1.2 trillion on their student loans, it’s not hard to imagine why a tale about armed federal agents’ showing up at the door of a Texas man to arrest him over unpaid student loans set the Internet abuzz. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/17/us/viral-student-loan-nightmare-is-not-what-it-seems-authorities-say.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0
Authorities said they had been trying for years to get the Houston resident, Paul Aker, to pay back a single student loan from almost three decades.
So for the millions of Americans who may worry that the authorities will show up with handcuffs to collect old student debt, Mr. Aker’s arrest is hardly typical — as long as you respond to the government’s requests to pay up.
Mr. Aker appeared on a Houston-area Fox affiliate on Monday to tell how seven deputy marshals visited his home with guns last Thursday.
Mr. Aker said he initially had no idea why the marshals were at his door. He said he had heard nothing about the loan for almost 30 years.
“I’m home,” he said in the Fox interview. “I haven’t done anything, and why are the marshals knocking on my door? It’s amazing.”
Sitting alongside Representative Gene Green, a Democrat in the 29th District, Mr. Aker recounted how he was taken to a federal court, where he was made to wait in a cell for a hearing. He then had to sign a payment plan for the 29-year-old loan. The amount: $1,500.
“I just couldn’t believe that I was standing before the court with no rights read to me,” he said.
Mr. Aker is a project manager at a company called Phantom Power Productions, according to documents. Calls to his employer went unanswered Tuesday.
The United States Marshals Service said in a statement that agents had been trying to collect on Mr. Aker’s debt since 2012 and that they finally tracked him down to his Houston residence.
The statement said “the situation escalated” when he threatened two deputies, saying “he had a gun.”
“After Aker made the statement that he was armed,” the statement read, “in order to protect everyone involved, the deputies requested additional law enforcement assistance.”
The story that went viral cited an unnamed source with the United States marshals in Houston who said plans were afoot to arrest 1,200 to 1,500 more people who had failed to repay federal student loans. According to the marshals, about 1,500 people in Houston had been identified as having missed court appearances to address their outstanding federal student loans, and that has resulted in arrest warrants.
Mr. Green, the congressman, called the arrest an egregious example of private companies’ contracting with the United States government to help arrest and prosecute debtors.
“Our federal resources, U.S. marshals and the federal court system are being used by the private sector,” Mr. Green said in the Fox interview.
To some extent, he is correct: After the Education Department exhausts attempts to contact a debtor and seize the debt with tactics that can include garnishing wages, the department turns over the delinquent accounts to the Department of Justice, and a lawsuit is filed. That is often when private lawyers get involved.
M. H. Cersonsky, a lawyer with the Houston-based law firm Cersonsky, Rosen and Garcia, has contracted with the government to take student borrowers to court on behalf of the government and the Education Department. Documents show that Mr. Cersonsky’s name appears in Mr. Aker’s case — and it has been attached to roughly 7,000 student debt dockets in the United States District Court’s Southern District of Texas since 2002.
Mr. Cersonsky, who is known as Butch, said in a phone interview on Tuesday that “arrests are at the end of the process” of attempts to collect the debts, but he would not comment on this case or say how often arrests occur.
In 2012, Mr. Cersonsky was quoted as saying that the firm helped return as much as $1 million to the government in one year alone, Bloomberg reported.
Some advocates say the tactics used are becoming increasingly aggressive.
The director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, Persis Yu, said in an interview that arrests were an extreme version of what she described as the “draconian consequences” of the government’s attempts to contact student borrowers.
“I don’t know the circumstances of this guy’s loans or his legal troubles,” Ms. Yu said. “But it’s certainly heartbreaking to see somebody be arrested for a debt. We’ve outlawed debtors prisons in this country and for good reason.”
After his arrest, court documents reveal, Mr. Aker, whose name was given as Winford P. Aker, not only had to sign the repayment plan for his student loan; he said he was also ordered to pay the marshals $1,258.60 as reimbursement for his arrest.
Now, with interest, court fees and a reimbursement order, Mr. Aker owes about $3,800, more than twice the amount of the loan’s original principal.

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