“Your government might have grown too large if they have 48 federal SWAT teams. The Department of Education has a SWAT team. They arrested a man and handcuffed him for six hours for nonpayment of student debt. Unfortunately, it wasn’t his student debt. Turns out it was his girlfriend’s student debt. The Department of Agriculture has a SWAT team. You know what they arrested somebody for not too long ago? Selling milk directly from the cow. We’ve gone crazy.”
— Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), speech in Alaska, Aug. 25, 2015
The crowd at Paul’s stump speech in Fairbanks, Alaska, groaned and “tsk’ed” at these two anecdotes of federal government overreach. He also retold the story of Robert Lucas, an elderly man allegedly arrested for putting dirt on his land — a tale that previously had earned Four Pinocchios.
These stories of the federal government’s paramilitary busts of private citizens for seemingly innocuous crimes went over well with the crowd — but how accurate are they?
“48 federal SWAT teams”
The first SWAT, or Special Weapons and Tactics, team was deployed as a specialized unit within the Los Angeles Police Department during the race riots of 1969. Since then, the name “SWAT” has become widely used for all-purpose special operations teams within local police agencies that are deployed for dangerous or armed situations.
Paul’s campaign provided a news report citing a Bureau of Justice Statistics study, showing 73 federal agencies employ about 120,000 full-time officers who are authorized to carry guns and make arrests. The report, which uses 2008 data, showed that excluding the 33 offices of inspectors general, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice employed about four out of five federal officers.
But that is not the same as 48 agencies — or even 73 agencies — having their own SWAT teams.
The only federal agency that has an actual SWAT team is the FBI, and the team responds to active shooter and hostage situations, according to Steve Lenkart, executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.
The others are teams wearing protective gear and responding to high-risk situations within the jurisdiction of the specific agency, he said. Other agencies have tactical or specialized teams that some may view as similar to SWAT teams. For example, the Bureau of Prisons has a special team that responds to high-risk situations in prison cells, the U.S. Marshals has a Special Operations Group that is trained and equipped for high-risk criminal situations and other emergencies and disasters, and the Energy Department has a security team to handle events and terrorist attempts associated with hazardous materials.
“Department of Education SWAT team”
In June 2011, a local television station in Northern California reported that a SWAT team broke down the front door of Kenneth Wright’s house at 6 a.m., as officers grabbed him by the neck and brought him out to his front lawn. The officers woke up his three young children, put them in a police patrol car and searched the house, Wright said. The station reported that the Department of Education had initiated the search and called in SWAT for his wife’s defaulted student loans.
“They put me in handcuffs in that hot patrol car for six hours, traumatizing my kids,” he told local media.
The story went viral, based on the initial report. But it turned out to be false. (It was actually difficult to find the initial erroneous report. We dug it up, and it was labeled “DO NOT RE-POST.“)
The officers were from the DOE’s Office of Inspector General, and they were not part of a SWAT team. Offices of Inspector General have special agents that are federal law enforcement officers, and are sometimes issued protective gear. (The department’s OIG does not have a SWAT team, a spokeswoman confirmed.) The search warrant released by Wright shows that officers were searching for materials related to violations of federal statutes regarding financial aid fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy and others.
Indeed, Wright was involved in a student aid fraud ring, orchestrated by his wife. Both of them were sentenced for their roles in the scheme, along with other fraud ring members.
They recruited students to sign up for college classes to receive financial aid funds, according to the 2014 DOJ press release on their sentencing. Some agreed to have their identities used for fraud, and others had their information used without consent. Wright was sentenced to a probation term and his wife was sentenced to prison.
“Department of Agriculture SWAT team”
Paul’s campaign sent two sources for his statement: an editorial describing SWAT teams that busted a local co-op for selling raw, unpasteurized milk and an article about the Food and Drug Administration raiding a farm in Pennsylvania for shipping unpasteurized milk across state lines (which is illegal under federal law).
The FDA’s Office of Inspector General does not have a SWAT team. Neither does the USDA nor the USDA’s inspector general. The FDA has an Office of Criminal Investigations, whose agents investigate the sale or distribution of unapproved FDA regulated products and a host of other violations of federal law.
Both were investigations as a part of the FDA’s crackdown, using sting operations, on the sale of unpasteurized milk. Regulators say raw products — especially raw milk — can be dangerous and could lead to disease outbreaks. But raw-food advocates believed regulators unnecessarily were cracking down on alternative food sources, and that there was no need to draw guns on milk-buying clubs.
The first case: A multi-agency investigation of Rawesome, a raw food store in Venice, Calif., led to a raid of the store in 2011. The owners were arrested on suspicion of several charges, including illegally making and selling raw milk products. The FDA said the owners violated federal regulations requiring them to be licensed, regulated and inspected. The owners said Rawesome did not get a license because it was not an actual store, rather a members-only club that specialized in raw foods.
The second case: Undercover FDA agents had purchased unpasteurized milk from the Pennsylvania farm of Daniel Allgyer, an Amish farmer, and documented their deliveries to neighboring states over several months. Allgyer also was a part of a raw milk buying club and had “cow share” agreements. A federal court granted the FDA a permanent injunction against Allgyer, who illegally distributed raw milk across state lines and did not label raw milk containers that were sold to customers.
Both cases have become emblematic of government overreach to those who want minimal government regulations. Ron Paul was a champion for Allgyer in Congress and on the 2012 presidential campaign trail, and criticized raw milk sales bans as “pasteurization without representation.” Rand Paul wrote about this case in his book, “Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans are Being Harassed, Abused and Imprisoned by the Feds,” declaring: “This case goes far beyond the debate about the health factors that come with consuming raw milk. This prosecution by the FDA … now has jurisdiction over private property use.”
The Pinocchio Test
Paul’s description of federal agencies with law enforcement officers, the DOE case and the raw milk cases was inaccurate on almost all fronts. The federal government does not have 48 SWAT teams; it has one, with the FBI. There are dozens of agencies with specialized forces, or armed agents to carry out the agency’s criminal enforcement — which is not the same thing as a SWAT team. The DOE case he described was debunked after the original local report, and it is irresponsible to continue to tell the details of the initially misreported story.
His second story also is inaccurate. The FDA (which he called USDA) does not have a SWAT team. The two sellers prosecuted in the case were not just penalized for selling unpasteurized milk, which was legal in their states. The California store owner did not obtain proper licenses, and the Pennsylvania farmer was prosecuted for interstate commerce, which is illegal. Both also did not meet the FDA’s labeling regulations.
Whether these regulations are valid or should exist are out of The Fact Checker’s purview. What is within our realm is the accuracy of his statements, and Paul got almost every detail incorrect in retelling these crowd favorites. He earns Four Pinocchios.
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