In Los Angeles, U.S. Attorney Stephen Trott began his attack by going to the press and listing 90 "deadbeats," including lawyers, doctors, a dentist and a television newscaster, who had refused to repay a total of $270,000 in federal loans.
In Philadelphia, U.S. Attorney Peter Vaira took a different tack. In recent months he has ordered U.S. marshals to seize 27 cars, including a Mercedes and a Cadillac, from people who had defaulted on their student loans.
Trott and Vaira, like U.S. attorneys all over the country, are working on a project being coordinated by Paul McGrath, head of the Justice Department's Civil Division, to round up "deadbeats" that other government agencies have given up on.
The Justice Department represents the end of the line for the government's debt-collection effort -- the point at which the government turns to the courts for permission to go after salaries or personal property.
"People are upset at the fact that there are people who had student loans who are rich doctors, living in big houses, and haven't repaid them. It just takes money from people who could use the loans," McGrath said.
Attorney General William French Smith recently announced that the department had collected more than $177 million in debts and fines during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
"This administration has made a firm commitment to ferret out waste and abuse in government . . . as part of this nation's economic recovery program," Smith said. " . . . Many of the borrowers just don't, or won't repay, even though they are financially capable."
U.S. Attorney Trott added, "We wanted to make an example and let the public know we were serious about this."
The individual debts, he said, ranged from $500 to $10,000. "The only ones referred to us are the obvious deadbeats," Trott added. "We're not talking about chasing around after people who have fallen on hard times. We're talking about cases where there is an ability to pay and obvious resistance."
Vaira said he is not interested in going after people who don't have the money to pay. Except for two virtually worthless cars, he said, the cars he seized were reclaimed quickly by their owners, who either paid off their loans immediately or agreed to payment schedules.
Smith said the department has spent only about $1 for every $16.28 collected.