Word that the U.S. attorney's office in the District of Columbia plans to come knocking -- literally -- at the doors of recalcitrant debtors with delinquent student loans spurred feverish action yesterday in the debtors' ranks.
Several telephoned the office to say they were ready to pay up. One woman anxiously asked, "If I pay now, will I still have to go to jail?" And there was a call from an anonymous informant who just wanted to turn in a "friend," whom she said owed a very old debt.
Lawyers in the office were gladly taking all comers, one day after announcing that they would send out U.S. marshals to pick up debtors and bring them into court if they continue to ignore judicial orders to make payments.
"We are delighted with the reaction today, and hope it means more people will promptly repay," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Royce C. Lamberth. "If they don't, it's only a matter of time before the U.S. marshals come knocking at their doors."
U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova announced Wednesday that he already had brought one debtor into court, in what he said was a first in the government's longtime battle to chip away at millions in defaulted student loans.
As part of a nationwide crackdown on the debtors, diGenova's office has filed 50 new lawsuits seeking payment from borrowers who allegedly owe the government amounts ranging from $498 to $9,700 plus interest. The filings are a first step that could ultimately lead to a visit from the U.S. marshals.
The list of debtors, all with D.C. home addresses, was released Wednesday after the lawsuits were filed, and it includes five lawyers, nine federal employes, six employes of the D.C. government and one man employed by Metro, according to Lamberth. He said he could not determine the occupations of the others.
Several on the list, he said, had called in to make arrangements to start payments. But it appeared that others, contacted yesterday by reporters, have different views.
Jephunneh Lawrence, a lawyer who, according to the list, allegedly owes $1,840 on a loan, said in a telephone interview, "I don't know anything about it." Asked if he owed any money, Lawrence replied, "None that I'm aware of."
Another of the listed borrowers, Charles E. Johnson of Northwest Washington, said in a telephone interview that he may turn around and sue the government. "It sounds to me like they're trying to make an example of 50 people," said Johnson. "The Constitution provides equal protection, and maybe I can take action against them for besmirching my name."
He said he took out several loans in the late 1960s, paid part of the money back and was in a special program in which some of the debt was "to be forgiven." The accounting records, he said, "became muddled" and the university he attended refused to straighten out the problem, insisting he owed more than he actually did and refusing to respond to his letters.
"I'm not saying I don't owe any money . . . but I don't owe the amount claimed and they have refused to discuss it," said Johnson, who is listed as owing about $5,500.
One of the debtors, Michael O. Burnett, said he didn't have the money previously but has now saved enough to pay off his debt. "It's my obligation and I'll stand up for it," he said. "I just have to get the money together."
Perhaps the quickest response came from a woman who called the Department of Education, which initiated the crackdown. "She wanted to carry the check in today because she was so worried," said Richard Hastings, director of debt collection. "I told her to make it certified, and where to come. I'll be waiting to see what turns up in the till."