Two years ago, Air Force Technical Sergeant Charles Cornacchio lost nearly everything he owned when a Billerica storage company auctioned his belongings to the highest bidder while he was deployed to the Middle East.
Now, US Representative Seth Moulton, a Salem Democrat and combat veteran, is calling for tougher penalties, including lengthy prison terms for repeat offenders, against companies that illegally sell the possessions of military members on active duty.
On Tuesday Moulton and US Representative Lori Trahan, a Westford Democrat, introduced a bill that would subject anyone who illegally enforces a storage lien, after a previous conviction for the same offense, to a maximum of three years in prison.
“We clearly need to raise the stakes for this kind of behavior, give the Department of Justice a broader range of tools to punish offenders, and deter this kind of behavior going forward,” said Moulton, a US Marine who served four tours in Iraq.
It’s widely known in the military that “this kind of thing happens a lot,” Moulton said. But he believed Cornacchio’s case, reported in the Globe in October, was “the most egregious case I have heard about.”
Father & Son Moving & Storage recently agreed to pay Cornacchio $60,000, along with a $5,000 fine to the government, to settle Justice Department allegations that it violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. The law prohibits storage companies from selling the possessions of military members on active duty unless they obtain an order from a federal judge, and violators may face steep fines and up to a year in prison.
Cornacchio said he paid Father & Son $2,190 in February 2019 to pack up his belongings at his home at Hanscom Air Force Base and store them for six months. But five months later the company sold it all at auction, from furniture and appliances to family heirlooms and irreplaceable keepsakes. Among them were mementos from Cornacchio’s cousin, a Green Beret killed in Afghanistan; his grandfather’s Korean War medals, a dresser handcrafted by his great-grandfather; old photographs; and letters his parents wrote to him when he was at boot camp.
Cornacchio, 33, was serving in Qatar when he learned about the auction and said he searched for two years for his belongings.
The company said it was unaware of the law and didn’t know that Cornacchio had been deployed. But Cornacchio said he told the company he was being deployed and was in uniform when the movers arrived at his home.
“I didn’t care about my washer, my dryer, my furniture, my TV,” Cornacchio said during a telephone interview in October from Italy, where he is currently stationed. “I kind of care about my guitars, my drums, but the things that really kept me up at night, and still does, are the personal stuff I collected or inherited.”
Jack Regan, a senior fellow at Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic who represents Cornacchio, said the law provides important protections for military members so they don’t have to worry about economic issues at home while on active duty. It protects military members on active duty — and up to 90 days after their service ends — from foreclosures, evictions, car repossessions, credit card cancellations, and action related to student loan debt.
“I think that the purpose of this statute is to protect vulnerable people, namely servicemembers who are deployed and their families from the enforcement of liens that can lead to a loss of property and in a case like Charlie’s a permanent loss of property,” Regan said.
If the proposed amendment gets the attention of businesses and make them aware of their obligation to customers who are in the military, “then that’s a good thing,” he said.
The Justice Department has aggressively targeted violators of the law over the past decade, including banks that foreclosed on the homes of hundreds of military members while they were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those cases resulted in civil suits, and settlements requiring steep fines, but no prosecutions or jail time.
In 2015, the Justice Department announced that under settlements with five mortgage services – JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi, GMAC and Bank of America — 952 service members who lost their homes to unlawful foreclosures were eligible to share in settlement funds totaling more than $123 million.
Those foreclosures prompted congressional hearings and calls for increased penalties.
Under the current law, violators can face as much as a year in prison, but prosecutions are rare. In one case, an Alabama used car dealer pleaded guilty in 2013 to repossessing and selling the truck of a National Guardsman who had been deployed to Afghanistan. He was placed on probation for three years and ordered to pay restitution of $7,310.
The bill introduced by Moulton and Trahan proposes increasing the potential prison time for repeat offenders who unlawfully enforce storage liens against deployed service members.
“There are some people who are never going to be deterred by fines because they have more than enough money to pay them,” Moulton said. But the prospect of a lengthy prison term “sends the message to the Department of Justice that lawmakers are taking this seriously, and the public is taking this seriously, and we want to see these laws more strictly enforced.”