An SEC move would put GIs’, vets’ nest eggs at risk
By JOHN KAMIN | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: May 17, 2018
While veterans groups have provided a strong bulwark on consumer protections for payday loan practices in an era of regulatory rollbacks, a new threat has emerged against a fundamental security of veteran and military families: their retirement savings. In recent months, regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have publicly considered scrapping long-standing policies that protect the savings of servicemembers and veterans, as well as every American with an IRA or 401(k).
For decades, if a big corporation misled or deceived investors, those harmed by this fraud could band together to hold them accountable in public court. These actions have recovered billions of dollars for cheated investors, ranging from large pension funds for retired or disabled veterans to active-duty servicemembers with individual retirement accounts. With military retirement funds increasingly invested in our securities markets, a dramatic policy reversal at the SEC could rob veterans and servicemembers of their hard-fought savings.
In an April letter to members of the House Financial Services Committee, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton broke with every previous SEC head — Republican and Democrat — when he refused to stand against letting corporations include arbitration clauses in their bylaws or offering documents. Instead, he stressed that he had “not formed a definitive view” on whether corporations should be able to force investors to give up their right to participate in class actions as the price of owning their stock.
On May 1, 133 organizations that work on behalf of middle-income, working Americans sent a letter urging Clayton to reaffirm the SEC’s longstanding position on this issue. We at The American Legion consider any such policy reversal to be an urgent threat to active-duty servicemembers and veterans as well.
Due to recent changes to the military retirement system, everyone who enlists after January 2018 receives some retirement benefits, whether they serve the 20 years required for full benefits or not. New servicemembers are automatically enrolled in the Thrift Savings Plan, a federal 401(k) that allows members to grow their savings in the stock market — so servicemembers and veterans have much at stake if the SEC removes investors’ best tool to enforce their rights. The TSP is an excellent retirement plan that offers high-quality investment options, but even the best plan cannot protect its members from the harmful effects of financial fraud.
When Bernie Madoff’s $20 billion Ponzi scheme made national headlines in 2008, Navy veteran Michael De Vita quickly became the public face of thousands of investors who lost everything. He worked as a naval electrician, fixing planes at his local base. After losing decades of savings and the high returns he was told he had earned, Michael had to scrap his plan to retire at 60. His 80-year-old mother Emma had also invested in Madoff’s fund, losing her late husband’s $1 million nest egg in the scam. She is now living on just half the monthly retirement stipend she had planned.
In the years since Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison, private attorneys have worked to return $11 billion to defrauded investors, including Michael and other veterans — filing more than 120 class actions related to Madoff. Investors also recovered $218 million in a class action against JP Morgan, which helped cover up the scheme. While Madoff’s scheme was not conducted through a publicly traded company, Michael’s story illustrates how investors benefit when they band together in complex fraud cases — an option that would be foreclosed if the SEC permits forced arbitration.
As the Department of Defense concluded regarding financial scams, servicemembers and veterans need and deserve full legal recourse against “unscrupulous” actors — including the right to hold them accountable in class actions. To ensure American investors can keep their hard-earned savings secure, the SEC must protect the longstanding class action rights of all investors.
John Kamin is assistant director of The American Legion’s Veterans Employment & Education Division.