Newly Unsealed Documents Show Top FDIC Officials Running Operation Choke Point
Norbert Michel Contributor Forbes.com
Policy I follow the evolution and devolution of monetary and financial policy
Last week brought new revelations regarding Operation Choke Point, the Obama administration’s effort to freeze politically disfavored businesses out of the financial system. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.), who helped lead a multi-year effort to shut the program down, highlighted some of theses newest findings and pointed out that stopping Operation Choke Point is not a partisan issue.
Luetkemeyer’s legislation to prevent a redo of Choke Point – The Financial Institution Customer Protection Act of 2017 – overwhelmingly passed the House, with only two nay votes. Operation Choke Point was an egregious affront to the rule of law, so it is good to see that so many lawmakers want to prevent a repeat.
For those unfamiliar, Choke Point consisted of bureaucrats in several independent federal agencies taking it upon themselves to shut legal businesses – such as payday lenders and firearms dealers – out of the banking system. Given the nature of the U.S. regulatory framework, this operation was easy to pull off.
Officials at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), for instance, simply had to inform the banks they were overseeing that the government considered certain types of their customers “high risk.” The mere implication of a threat was enough to pressure banks into closing accounts, because no U.S. bank wants anything to do with extra audits or investigations from their regulator, much less additional operating restrictions or civil and criminal charges.
Banks are incredibly sensitive to any type of pressure from federal regulators, and they know that the regulators have enormous discretion. The new revelations are quite scary because they show exactly what federal regulators can do with that discretion – even to law-abiding citizens. As Rep. Luetkemeyer points out:
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.
In fact, the evidence suggests that the highest-ranking officials at the FDIC were involved in Choke Point. For instance, on page 5, the following facts are revealed:
At the very least, the Trump administration owes the public a full investigation into Operation Choke Point and an explanation for why many of the people involved in this abuse of power are still working for the government.