A former Obama administration top official admitted Operation Choke Point had “unintended but collateral consequences” on banks and U.S. consumers.
One of President Barack Obama’s former top Justice Department officials behind Operation Choke Point said Thursday the program had “unintended but collateral consequences” on banks and U.S. consumers.
“Unfortunately, as the investigations continue, so too have one of the unintended but collateral consequences of such vigilance: mass de-risking,” wrote Michael J. Bresnick, who previously served as executive director of Obama’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, under which Operation Choke Point was created. “Members of the industry have raised their hands in frustration and simply avoided lines of business typically associated with higher risk. This reaction to [the Justice Department’s] enforcement initiative, and similar matters brought by the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is certainly understandable.”
Bresnick addressed the issue in an op-ed for American Banker.
According to government documents, Operation Choke Point was designed by the Justice Department in 2012 to “attack Internet, telemarketing, mail, and other mass market fraud against consumers, by choking fraudsters’ access to the banking system.”
Critics of the program say it was used to put the financial squeeze on entire industries the Obama administration doesn’t like, such as firearms sellers and payday lenders.
In addressing what he referred to as “consequences” of Operation Choke Point, Bresnick called for government officials to work “closely” with banks to solve problems he says the program created.
“Only when the government truly understands the consequences of its actions (especially the unintended consequences), acknowledges those concerns to those directly affected, and works closely with them to address the challenges they face, can we expect that the multitude of good actors who desperately want to avoid the last resort of de-risking will be able to do so with relative comfort,” he wrote.
The concept of “de-risking” refers to banks’ decision not to do business with industries that federal regulators flag as “high risk” for fraud.
In 2011, for example, federal agencies sent thousands of U.S. banks formal guidance identifying categories of merchants the agencies considered high risk. That list featured “firearms” and “ammunition” sales, along with “pornography.”
In the article, Bresnick also suggested that corrective actions taken by the Justice Department and other federal banking regulating agencies to address some of the program’s shortcomings are insufficient to stop banks from denying service to legal businesses.
“All of the public statements in the world by [the Justice Department] or the regulators that they are only targeting the truly bad fraudsters, and that they are not going after minor violations, won’t change the natural reaction to de-risk because there’s simply no telling exactly where the government will decide to draw its phantom line.”
In order to fix it, he said, government officials must work with banks instead of against them.
Put simply, the government will get better results if it works with industry rather than against it, and acknowledges the terrible tension industry faces between serving a community and subjecting itself to increased scrutiny.
Just last month, a large bank in New England denied a line of credit to a former police officer who started a gun and tactical business in Monroe, Conn., telling the business owner on voicemail it “no longer lends to firearms dealers.”
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