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Director Wray’s Remarks at the University of Georgia’s Getzen Lecture on Accountability | Federal Bureau of Investigation

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Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Dean Auer, and good afternoon, everybody. 

I want to begin by thanking you for the opportunity to be back here in Georgia today. This is where my career in law—and, a few years later, law enforcement—really began. I still think of it as home, so it’s great to be back in Bulldog Nation today.

I’m honored to be a part of the university’s Signature Lecture Series. I understand last week’s Signature Lecture featured a Nobel Prize winner, and that you’ll hear from another one next week. My wife and kids would tell you I’m most assuredly not a Nobel Laureate, but I appreciate your faith that today’s talk might be worth listening to anyway.

Most of all, I want to thank Cissie and Dan Willoughby. Since they established the Getzen Lecture on Government Accountability back in 2006, it’s drawn the public’s attention to some of the most important ways our Nation holds those in power responsible. The Willoughbys established the Getzen Lecture in honor of Cissie’s parents, Evangeline and Forrest Getzen, both lifelong advocates of public service and education. 

And today marks the first Getzen Lecture since Evangeline passed away in January. She was a career civil servant who devoted more than two decades to serving others, ultimately as director of North Carolina’s Women, Infants, and Children Program. And I can’t think of a better way to honor her legacy than with the important public discussions this lecture series generates.

Before I go any further, I want to pause for a moment to touch on something I know has been on everyone’s minds all over the country, really, but especially here. And that’s the shocking murder of Laken Riley on campus last month.

I want to tell you how heartbroken I am—not just for the family, friends, classmates, and staff who are grieving Laken’s loss—but for Augusta University and the entire UGA community, which many members of my own family are a part of. A lot of people—students, alumni, and community members alike—see Athens as a kind of safe haven from what ails so much of the rest of the country. And I’m saddened to see that sense of peace shattered by Laken’s murder and the subsequent arrest of a Venezuelan national who’d illegally entered the country in 2022.

Please know the men and women of the FBI’s resident agency here in Athens, our field office in Atlanta, and our offices across the country stand with you. And we’re doing everything we can to help achieve justice for Laken.

Our mission at the FBI is a broad one—to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States. It covers everything from cyber to counterintelligence to counterterrorism to working with our partners to tackle violent crime. And, particularly relevant to this afternoon, it includes protecting the vulnerable and holding the powerful accountable.

That’s what I want to focus on during my remarks today—the FBI’s efforts to ensure that those among us who wield the most power do so by the book, that they follow the same laws as everyone else. Because at the end of the day, that’s what the rule of law is all about.

Thomas Paine put it in simple terms around the time of our Nation’s founding when he wrote, “In America, the law is king.” It’s what distinguishes us from authoritarian regimes like Russia and China—where the rule of law is subordinated to their leaders’ despotic will. In our country, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, powerful or powerless, a public official or an ordinary citizen—the same rules apply to everyone.

It sounds pretty simple—no one is above the law. But to maintain faith in the system, it’s up to us to show the American people that when those in power break the law, we hold them accountable, too. When the powerful abuse their position, it doesn’t just cost taxpayer dollars, disrupt the administration of justice, and cause harm to victims—when those in whom society places so much trust violate their commitment to the people they serve, it undermines faith in our government and public institutions. And that’s not just costly and devastating to victims, it’s downright dangerous for the rule of law itself.

Which is why our work to hold those who abuse power accountable is so core to our mission at the FBI. It includes holding law enforcement accountable when they stray from their oath and abuse their power—harming the very citizens they’re sworn to protect. And it includes accountability for public officials who make important decisions about how we’re governed and how our hard-earned tax dollars are spent.

The FBI’s work pursuing abuses of power is righteous and noble, but it also comes with a healthy dose of scrutiny and second-guessing. And I’ll talk more about that in a moment, too.

But I’ll start with our efforts to protect Americans’ civil rights by holding law enforcement officers accountable. As part of their vital role in enforcing our laws and keeping us all safe, law enforcement officers have the power to arrest and detain people, to search and seize property, and in some cases even to use deadly force. Given all that tremendous power, it’s our job to step in to investigate allegations of abuse.

Now, let me be clear here. I’m the leader of the world’s premier law enforcement agency, and I’ve spent most of my career proudly working shoulder to shoulder with law enforcement officers. At the FBI, we couldn’t have the impact we do without the partnership of the nearly 6,000 state and local law enforcement officers who work alongside our agents on our various FBI-led task forces.

Last year alone, for instance, the FBI and our law enforcement partners arrested nearly 18,000 violent criminals and child predators. That’s almost 50 bad guys we took off the streets per day, every day—together. So I’ve seen first-hand what they’re made of and what they do to make our communities safer.

The overwhelming majority of officers are in the job because they think of others before themselves, no matter the cost. They’re men and women of courage and character, of dedication and service. They work long hours—longer than most people will ever know—and don’t get paid nearly enough for what they do. Much of their work goes on behind the scenes—and rarely gets the attention or credit it deserves.

To answer the call to go into law enforcement, you’ve got to really want to help people. Because every day, when officers pick up their badges and say goodbye to their families, they know there’s a chance they might not make it home. Just stop for a second and think about what that really means. What it takes for someone to be willing to put their life on the line for another—and I’m not talking about a member of their family—I’m talking about potentially giving up their life to protect a total stranger.

Now think about doing that day after day, year after year for an entire career—and not just while they’re on the job, but when they’re “off duty,” out with their own family, too. It takes a pretty extraordinary person to choose that life.

Which is why when officers violate their oath and hurt the ones they’re sworn to serve instead of protecting them, it’s a discredit to those scores of brave men and women who do the job the right way, each and every day. And it’s why law enforcement at all levels share an interest in holding those who stray accountable.

At the FBI, we fulfill that duty as part of our responsibility to safeguard the civil rights of all Americans. And I can think of no better place to discuss that work than here in Georgia, where the capital’s known as the cradle of the modern civil rights movement.

Today, the FBI is the primary federal agency charged with investigating civil rights violations. And while our work combating hate crimes might be what most people think of when it comes to the Bureau’s civil rights program, another absolutely essential part of it is our investigation of color-of-law violations. Those crimes occur when an individual acting under the authority of federal, state, or local laws—under what’s known as the color of law—willfully deprives someone of their constitutional rights. And that deprivation of rights can run the gamut, from excessive force, false arrest, or obstruction of justice—to sexual assault, withholding medical care, or the failure to keep an individual from harm. While color-of-law violations can be committed by anybody acting under their lawful authority, including probation and corrections officers, public officials, prosecutors, and judges, they too often involve law enforcement officers.

An investigation the FBI’s Jackson, Mississippi, field office conducted last year represents a particularly heinous example. In January 2023, six white law enforcement officers committed some absolutely unspeakable crimes. Without a warrant or any exigent circumstances, the six of them kicked in the door of a home where two Black men were staying and subjected them to an hour and a half of pure hell. Despite having no probable cause to believe either had committed a crime, the six officers: handcuffed and arrested the men; kicked and beat them; bombarded them with racial slurs; forced them to strip naked; assaulted them with a variety of objects; tased them—not once, but 17 times; and fired their guns to intimidate them.

But apparently that wasn’t enough for these defendants. One of them had the idea to stage a mock execution. So he took his weapon and secretly removed a bullet from the chamber. He put the barrel into one victim’s mouth and pulled the trigger, dry-firing the gun. Then he did it again—but this time, the gun didn’t dry-fire. It discharged, sending a bullet into the victim’s mouth, lacerating his tongue, and breaking his jaw.

Can you imagine the abject terror those two victims must have felt? I mean, who do you call when the police are the ones terrorizing you? No human being should ever be subjected to the torture, the trauma, the horrific acts of violence carried out by those individuals. 

As their gunshot victim lay bleeding on the floor, what do you think these six law enforcement officers—men who had sworn an oath to protect and serve—did next? I can tell you they didn’t render aid. Instead, they came up with a cover story and then took steps to corroborate it. They planted a gun on one of the victims; destroyed surveillance video, spent shell casings, and taser cartridges; submitted phony drug evidence to the crime lab; filed false reports; charged one of the victims with crimes he had not committed; made false statements to investigators; and pressured witnesses to stick to their cover story.

All of that came out through the course of the FBI’s investigation. We also found that in addition to those offenses, three of the officers had committed other color-of-law violations just a month earlier, when one of them beat another man, tased him, and fired a gun near his head attempting to coerce a confession, while the other two failed to intervene.

I recognize that what happened in Mississippi is an extreme example. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more atrocious set of civil rights violations than those carried out by these guys. But on the flip side, it’s hard to imagine more important work than investigating those crimes and seeking justice for the victims. As the result of the Bureau’s color-of-law investigation, which we worked in collaboration with our federal and state partners, all six pled guilty last August and are now waiting to be sentenced.

The contrast between the vast majority of law enforcement officers who are in the job for the right reasons, to help people and keep communities safe—and the others, like those six in Mississippi, who instead use their power and authority to hurt the most vulnerable—that contrast is what makes color-of-law violations so immensely harmful.

We’ve entrusted law enforcement officers with vast power and authority. And when they abuse it—when they operate as though they’re above the law—they’re not just depriving victims of their civil rights. They’re degrading the public’s trust in our criminal justice system, one violation at a time. And that’s why the FBI’s work investigating these kinds of abuses is among our most important responsibilities.

The philosopher David Hume wrote that the corruption of the best things produces the worst. I know firsthand the men and women who choose a career of protecting others to be some of the very best among us. But while officers-turned-criminals make up a tiny fraction of the law enforcement community, the harm they do has the worst possible effect. Because no matter how infrequent, when officers violate the civil rights of ordinary citizens, it erodes trust—often in our most vulnerable communities—making the job that much harder for the honest men and women who do things the right way.

By the same token, public officials—whether they’re elected, appointed, or otherwise hired—who use their positions to enrich themselves also have a corrosive effect on people’s faith in government.

You’ve probably heard the maxim, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That was written more than a century ago by Lord Acton, a British historian. But you might not have heard what he wrote a few lines later: “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

When someone decides the office they hold places them above the law, it’s often the Bureau’s job to make sure they’re held accountable. Now again, many public servants working at all levels of government are honest and dedicated people who strive to do the right thing for their constituents and their country.

Unfortunately, there are also public officials who are only concerned with serving a very specific constituency: themselves. That type of corruption strikes at the very heart of government. It eats away at public confidence and undermines the strength of our democracy. And public corruption is not limited to crooked politicians who get caught with their hands in the till. It can affect everything from how well our borders are secured and our neighborhoods are protected to how verdicts are handed down in courtrooms and how roads and schools are built. And it can take a significant toll on the public’s wallet by siphoning off tax dollars.  

In fact, estimates put the cost of public corruption to the U.S. government and the American public at billions of dollars every year. That’s why the FBI has made investigating public corruption a top criminal priority. Crimes involving public corruption are often the result of secret deals, sealed with whispered conversations, quick handshakes, and money paid under the table. Their secretive nature makes them difficult to detect—and even more difficult to prove.

Fortunately, the Bureau’s been working these kinds of crimes for a very long time now, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. On any given day, we’re working about 35-hundred public corruption investigations with our federal, state, and local partners across the country. And our efforts pay off.

Over the past five years, we’ve disrupted nearly 2,000 criminal schemes and helped secure more than 3,000 convictions in this arena. Among those criminals we helped convict was Larry Householder. Now, you might not have heard of him here in Georgia, but the folks in Ohio sure have. He was Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, where he headed up the most elaborate and extensive corruption scandal that state has ever seen.

The scheme centered on House Bill 6, which was under consideration by the Ohio legislature. The bill included a billion-dollar bailout for two failing nuclear power plants owned by FirstEnergy, one of the nation’s largest investor-owned electric systems. Beginning in March 2017, FirstEnergy started making sizeable quarterly payments to Householder’s tax-exempt social welfare organization, Generation Now, which he and his team used to support the bill’s passage—and to defeat a subsequent ballot initiative to overturn the law. In exchange, millions of dollars went to Householder’s bid for speaker, to other state House candidates likely to support him, and to line his and his team’s own pockets. Householder spent more than half a million dollars to pay off his credit cards, repair his home in Florida, and settle a business lawsuit.

All in all, the FBI’s investigation found FirstEnergy paid upwards of 61 million dollars in bribes to bail out their plants, and to put and keep in office politicians like Householder who’d be loyal to the company over their constituents. Now, what he and his co-conspirators did not realize is that the Bureau had someone on the inside. And that insider cooperated with our agents, recorded incriminating phone calls and conversations, and shared text messages sent by members of the conspiracy. I’m pleased to report a jury found Householder guilty of serious racketeering charges.

And I’m even more pleased to report that last summer, he received the maximum sentence for his crimes—20 years in federal prison When announcing his sentence, the judge called Householder—and I quote—“a bully with a lust for power.” And rightly observed that his crimes were an “assault on democracy” and “a betrayal of everyone in Ohio.” 

The scope of Householder’s conspiracy was unprecedented, as was the damage he left in his wake. In terms of financial harm to the citizens he’d taken an oath to represent, and erosion of the Ohio public’s confidence in their elected officials. And as for FirstEnergy? They signed a deferred prosecution settlement and agreed to pay a 230-million-dollar penalty for conspiring to bribe elected officials and others.

The amount of time, talent, and resources the FBI and our partners put into that investigation shows how committed we are to pursuing corrupt officials who abuse their offices. And that’s just one case. At any given time, we’ve got hundreds of significant public corruption investigations all over the country.

I remember back in my days as a line prosecutor, working with phenomenal agents here in Georgia. Whether it was investigating a corrupt sheriff or city official—public corruption cases were among my most challenging and most meaningful. Now, in this job, I travel all over the world and meet with law enforcement counterparts from countries large and small. And I can tell you that the United States’ commitment to pursuing well-resourced, highly professional, independent investigations of our communities’ most powerful members when they break the law is unmatched anywhere. It’s one of the things that sets us apart—the level of our commitment to checks and balances and the rule of law.

That said, often, when following the facts means investigating some of our communities’ most powerful members—whether that’s mayors, judges, or sheriffs—the bullseye can end up on our backs, as well.

In our business, almost by definition, there’s no way we’re going to make everyone happy. Whether it’s the arrest we made—or the one we didn’t make—in almost every situation, someone ain’t happy. But, unfortunately, in today’s world, all too often people who are unhappy with the outcome start questioning the legitimacy of the institutions themselves.

Whether it’s a trial, a Supreme Court case, even an election—people’s standard these days for judging whether something was fair or objective is whether they like the result—whether their side won or lost.

But that’s not how independence and objectivity work. It’s bad enough when folks denounce a specific case or investigation as tainted or unfair just because their side lost. But it gets exponentially worse when that attack goes from this case or that to saying the whole institution is corrupt because they didn’t like a particular outcome. Baseless attacks like that on the very legitimacy of the institutions that make up our democracy are particularly pernicious and strike at the heart of the rule of law.

And, frankly, against that backdrop, it’s especially important to be able to show we did the right thing, the right way—to avoid even the perception of bias in everything we do. Because when the second-guessing and arm-chair quarterbacking starts, the way we defend our work is by showing we dotted every “i”, crossed every “t” and did things by the book—holding ourselves to the highest standards.

The FBI is entrusted with an awful lot of authority and power—both of which we need to effectively carry out our mission. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to pursue justice in the case of those six officers in Mississippi, or to send a corrupt politician to jail for spearheading a multimillion-dollar racketeering conspiracy.

But to quote another noted authority—not lofty figures like Paine, Hume, or Lord Acton, but someone more my speed—Uncle Ben from Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man is credited with saying that with great power comes great responsibility. So while that authority and power are necessary for the FBI to do our job, they also come with an enormous amount of responsibility—and in turn, close scrutiny. And that’s how it should be.

The work of the FBI is subject to a wide range of internal and external controls, all with the aim of holding our organization accountable for what we do. Within the Bureau itself, of course, we’ve got an Internal Affairs Section in our Inspection Division, as well as an Office of Professional Responsibility, our disciplinary arm. There’s another Office of Professional Responsibility within the Department of Justice, not to mention DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General.

In addition, there are the whistleblower protections afforded to all FBI employees, there’s judicial review of our investigative steps, and then there’s Congress and the good folks there who oversee our work. All of those components are in place to make sure people have avenues for reporting violations of the law, dangers to public health and safety, and gross waste, fraud, and abuse—and so those issues can be investigated and corrected.

That examination—that oversight—makes us stronger as an organization. And it makes the public safer as a result.

For the FBI to be the world’s leading law enforcement agency, and for the American public to continue placing their trust in us as an organization, people need to know we’re committed to doing the right thing in the right way. That’s something I’ve spoken about repeatedly—our folks might even say exhaustively—since my very first days as Director.

It’s essential that we follow our processes—rigorously—every time. That means protecting the American people without fear or favor; it means upholding the Constitution and the rule of law; it means following the facts, wherever they lead, no matter who it makes happy or unhappy. And trust me, there’s always somebody who’s not happy.

Process is what enables us to say, “You may not like the result we reached, but you cannot credibly say we didn’t do our work by the book.” And it’s what allows people to trust us in the long run—the people we do the work for, and the people we do the work with. 

Unfortunately, there have been times in the FBI’s history when we weren’t doing the right thing, and certainly weren’t doing it in the right way. We’re over 115 years old, and any institution that’s been around as long as the FBI is going to make mistakes. What’s important is that we learn from them.

I’m thinking in particular about the FBI’s interactions with Martin Luther King, Jr., during a time when we strayed from our core values. In October 1963, Director J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General Robert Kennedy signed a request to wiretap Dr. King. The FBI’s wiretap application was just five sentences long and did not present a shred of evidence. The request simply said there was—and I quote—“a communist influence in the racial situation.” Our agency went on to wiretap Dr. King’s hotel rooms and later sent a reel of tape to his offices in Atlanta. After listening to it, he said of the FBI, “They are out to break me.”  

Dr. King’s words about the Bureau are painful to hear, but I do not think any organization can aspire to have an unbiased loyalty to process and truth if it’s not willing to turn the spotlight around and look at itself. So that’s something we work hard to do.

There’s another familiar Dr. King quote that I think fits us well: “The time is always right to do right.” And when the FBI falls short of the mark, we’re committed to holding ourselves accountable. That’s what the American people expect, and it’s what they deserve.

Our mission requires that we remain steadfast in preserving the constitutional rights of all citizens while protecting the safety of our communities. And we know that one need not—and must not—come at the expense of the other.

To reinforce the importance of this critical aspect of our mission, the curriculum for all our new agents and analysts includes those difficult historical lessons and how they relate to our core values: respect, compassion, fairness, integrity, accountability, leadership, diversity, and rigorous obedience to the Constitution.

Looking back on that dark chapter in our history reminds us what can happen when we become untethered from the rule of law, and from oversight and accountability for our actions. And I’m proud to be part of an organization that does not hide from its history, but learns from it instead.

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