BankThink Evidence is now clear: Operation Choke Point hurt lawful businesses

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October 24 2018, 10:12am EDT

By Blaine Luetkemeyer

 

As a former community banker, I had the amazing opportunity to work with many members of my community on their journey to the American dream. Whether it’s the first loan to open a small business or credit to hire more workers, financial institutions are critical partners for individuals and businesses as they strive to achieve success through hard work and dedication.

For the last five years, I have fought to end the Obama Administration’s ideologically driven initiative to kill legitimate businesses, aptly named “Operation Choke Point.” Former Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman William Isaac went as far as to call it “one of the most dangerous programs I have experienced in my 45 years of service as a bank regulator, bank attorney and consultant, and bank board member.” In this unprecedented initiative, unelected bureaucrats at the Department of Justice, the FDIC and other agencies set out to kill legal businesses by starving them of access to financial institutions.

Two weeks ago, our worst fears were realized. Despite the previous administration’s attempts to defend its actions, newly-unsealed court documents revealed additional compelling evidence exposing the vindictive bureaucrats who crusaded against legitimate businesses.

In one example of blatant intimidation, a bank terminated its relationship with a legal business after threats from the FDIC. The bank eventually surrendered to the pressure, and when the bank notified the FDIC of the decision, they admitted that a risk assessment showed the business “pose[d] no significant risk to the financial institution, including financial, reputation, and legal risk,” yet they still terminated the banking relationship.

For years, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency officials have continually denied any wrongdoing, yet in the newly-unsealed documents we see proof of a conscious decision to work in conjunction with the FDIC against payday lenders. These lenders were specifically targeted, not based on evidence of wrongdoing, but based on personal beliefs a decision to “suggest strongly that [banks] re-evaluate payday lending.”

As evidenced by the newly-unsealed documents, FDIC Regional Director Anthony Lowe instructed his staff to use “all available means, including verbal recommendations, to strongly encourage [banks] to refrain from any activities that provide assistance to the business activities of [payday] lending.” At the time, Mr. Lowe served as the regional director of the FDIC’s Chicago office, but he now serves as the FDIC Ombudsman. It is incomprehensible that Mr. Lowe is charged with supervising an office that is intended to serve as “a confidential, neutral, and independent source of information and assistance to anyone affected by the FDIC in its regulatory, resolution, receivership, or asset disposition activities.”

The evidence is truly astounding. As a former examiner, I find it appalling that senior government officials would not only allow, but encourage, this type of irresponsible behavior. The intimidation tactics and implicit bias employed by these unelected bureaucrats stands in direct opposition to the important missions of the agencies. It is simply unfathomable that some of the bureaucrats named in these newly-released documents still have their jobs.

Last week I sent letters to FDIC Chairman Jelena McWilliams and Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting urging them to investigate this matter and take immediate and firm action against any member of their staff who has abused their power. I hope Chairman McWilliams and Comptroller Otting will do what their predecessors consistently declined to do and restore the integrity of their agencies by removing those who weaponized their authority to attack businesses that have done nothing wrong.

This is not a partisan issue. The House passed my legislation to end Operation Choke Point once and for all by a strongly bipartisan vote of 395-2, and I am hopeful the Senate will act as well.

I am deeply concerned by the blatant intimidation, coercion and bias employed by unelected government officials to play politics with the livelihood of Americans. No matter your ideological leanings, the government should not be able to destroy all that you have worked for in pursuit of the American dream. We have a duty to ensure American businesses are never again subject to despicable abuses of power like Operation Choke Point.

Blaine Luetkemeyer

Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer represents the third congressional district of Missouri. He serves as chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit and as vice chairman of the House Small Business Committee.

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