Zachary A. Cunha | Chief of the civil division, U.S. Attorney’s Office in Rhode Island
1. As chief of the civil division, what are your areas of responsibility? Assistant U.S. attorneys in the civil division handle a broad range of issues … tort and employment suits, constitutional claims, and challenges to agency or administrative action. On the affirmative side, we combat fraud and pursue asset forfeiture, financial litigation and civil rights matters. My primary role, apart from my own cases, is to support the work of my talented colleagues [and] provide mentoring.
2. How aggressive is the civil division in seeking penalties due the government? For example, education loans or small-business loans that are not repaid. We frequently use the False Claims Act, a Civil War-era statute that allows the government to recover up to three times the amount lost to false or fraudulent claims; it’s an incredibly powerful tool to deal with grants and loans obtained under false pretenses, and money lost to contracting and health care fraud.
3. Collecting high-value criminal judgements owed to the government also falls under the civil division. How much is actually owed at this time and how can the U.S. Attorney’s Office recover it? We aggressively pursue both civil and criminal judgments to recover funds owed to the United States and, just as importantly, to satisfy restitution obligations to the victims of crime. The current total stands at [more than] $300 million for the district.
4. Asset forfeiture also falls under your authority. Can you describe some of the recent assets, or properties, turned over to the government? We frequently pursue assets that have been used to commit crimes and criminal proceeds – that could be a boat used in smuggling, cash involved in money laundering or property that is contraband. Civil forfeiture actions are brought against the asset, not a person, so you get wonderfully bizarre case names [such as] United States v. One Crocodile Handbag.
5. You were recognized in Massachusetts for your role in the prosecution of Pfizer Inc. How endemic is fraud in the pharmaceutical industry and do these high payouts make a difference in curbing that behavior? Patterns of fraud now are very different from a decade ago; I believe vigorous enforcement has played a key role in changing behavior. At the same time, new threats are constantly emerging and old ones recur in new ways. Right now, combatting opioid abuse is a top priority both locally and for the department.