Trump Administration Plans To Defang Consumer Protection Watchdog
Updated at 5:53 p.m. ET
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created after the financial crisis to protect Americans from being ripped off by financial firms.
Now, President Trump's interim appointee to run the bureau, Mick Mulvaney, is making radical changes to deter the agency from aggressively pursuing its mission.
The CFPB on Monday unveiled a new strategic plan to that end. In a message accompanying the plan for the years 2018 through 2022, Mulvaney wrote, "we have committed to fulfill the Bureau's statutory responsibilities, but go no further." The plan says the bureau should be "acting with humility and moderation."
This new direction is consistent with Mulvaney's other memos and statements and formalizes his plans for defanging the watchdog bureau and reshaping its mission, according to insiders and experts that NPR has talked to.
The CFPB is considered a powerful and independent watchdog. But many Republicans have wanted to shut it down since Day 1 because they think it's too powerful. Mulvaney is one of them. As a congressman, Mulvaney called the agency a "sick sad joke." He drafted legislation to abolish it. So people at the bureau were shocked when the president appointed him to run this consumer protection agency.
Within weeks of coming on board, Mulvaney has worked to make the watchdog agency less aggressive. Under his leadership, the CFPB delayed a new payday lending regulation from going into effect and dropped an investigation into one payday lender that contributed to Mulvaney's campaign. In another move that particularly upset some staffers, the new boss also dropped a lawsuit against an alleged online loan shark called Golden Valley Lending. The suit says the lender illegally charges people up to 950 percent interest rates. It took CFPB staffers years to build the case.
"People are devastated and angry — just imagine how you would feel if years of your life had been dedicated to pursuing justice and you lose everything," says Christopher Peterson, a former Office of Enforcement attorney at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who worked on this particular case early on.
Peterson believes that had the lawsuit been pursued and the CFPB won, it could have clawed back money to help thousands of people who have allegedly been hurt by the lender.
People like Julie Bonenfant, 27, who does administrative work for the city of Detroit. Last year was a tough one for her — she broke up with her boyfriend, her car was stolen and she got behind on her rent. She found Golden Valley Lending online and and took out a loan, but she says she had no idea what she was getting herself into.
"I was literally facing eviction because I was so behind on my rent and I had no idea where I was going to come up with the money and it was just really rough," Bonenfant says. "It was just misleading. ... The way it was presented was ... I was going to make four large payments and then be done."
But after those four payments, the lender continued to take money directly out of her checking account. When she asked why, the lender told her she had agreed online to a lot more payments.
Bonenfant sent NPR a screenshot from the Golden Valley website. It says on her $900 loan, her scheduled payments in less than 12 months will total $3,735, or more than four times what she borrowed.
Bonenfant has so far paid more than $3,000 to Golden Valley and rung up more than $1,000 in overdraft fees at her bank.
When she showed it to her boss, he called the loan's terms "illegal."
Lawyers at the CFPB came to a similar conclusion. That's why back in April, the bureau sued Golden Valley Lending for unfair, deceptive and abusive business practices.
The lawsuit was moving forward until Mulvaney came on board, when it was suddenly dropped.
"Dismissal of this lawsuit shows an outrageous disregard for the rule of law," says Peterson, who calls the lender "one of the worst of the worst" for swindling many people around the nation out of tens of millions of dollars.
A key backer of Golden Valley was recently convicted of racketeering charges in a case involving another online lender, according to court documents. Given this history, Peterson wonders why Mulvaney dropped the lawsuit against Golden Valley.
"The Trump administration is just going to turn them loose and let them off the hook despite the fact they were making 950 percent interest rate loans to struggling families in ways that were illegal and unauthorized under both state and federal law," Peterson says.
Mulvaney declined requests for an interview. In an email, his press representative first said the decision to drop the Golden Valley lawsuit was made by "professional career staff" and not Mulvaney.
But several CFPB staffers that NPR spoke to say that's not true. The staffers, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs, say Mulvaney decided to drop the lawsuit even though the entire career enforcement staff wanted to press ahead with it.
After repeated questioning from NPR, Mulvaney's press person acknowledged that Mulvaney was indeed involved in the decision to drop the lawsuit.
In his new strategic plan and in memos to staff, Mulvaney has made it clear that he wants to rein in the bureau.
He says the previous director "pushed the envelope" and has said he wants the agency to have more "humility." He has also suggested that going after payday lenders that charge extremely high interest rates won't be a priority.
Some see this as Mulvaney's way of paying back supporters of his campaign.
"As a congressman he took $62,000 plus from the payday lenders. And now at the CFPB he's doing their bidding," says Karl Frisch, executive director of the consumer group Allied Progress.
Of course, Mulvaney's moves could be just conservative ideology for less regulation. But in either case, there appear to be plenty of unhappy customers who have gotten loans from Golden Valley.
Robert Rogers, who builds customized motorcycles and guns, says he was trying to help his retired mother in California after she got into one of these Golden Valley loans. The cost of the loan seemed really high, so he called the company.
Rogers says the person who answered the call from Golden Valley wouldn't answer his questions about what the interest rate on the loan was and just kept telling him he had to pay and even threatened him — saying he'd come to his house and get the money "by any means necessary."
"Pretty much every other word out of his mouth was F'in this or F'in that. ... It became like some kind of just really bad gangster movie," Rogers says.
Golden Valley declined an interview. The company is officially headquartered on an Indian reservation. In a court document, the company argues its loans are governed by tribal law.
The CFPB lawsuit disagreed, saying Golden Valley makes illegal loans across the country.
For her part, Bonenfant still hasn't paid off her debt to Golden Valley. And she feels betrayed by the president, whose appointee dropped the lawsuit.
"To be honest I'm really mad, really pissed, because I actually voted for Trump," Bonenfant says. "So knowing that his guy threw out this case that affects people like me, I feel kind of like stupid — just kind of like betrayed."
Mulvaney hasn't officially offered details about why the case was dropped. Meanwhile, staffers at the bureau say they are worried Mulvaney will block more of their efforts to go after shady financial firms. He is reviewing numerous ongoing lawsuits and investigations.