Consumer Confidential With David Lazarus
Column

Scary thought: Trump now gets to pick the country's top consumer watchdog

After this week naming a former drug industry executive to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, President Trump now will be able to appoint his own pick to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Maybe someone from the payday lending business?

How about the former head of Wells Fargo? Or Equifax?

If I sound cynical, it’s because consumers owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Cordray, who announced Wednesday that he’s stepping down at the end of the month as director of the CFPB.

Trump and Republican lawmakers have long characterized Cordray as an enemy of the people — a bureaucrat run amok, imposing his autocratic will on gentle, kindhearted businesses that only want to compete freely and fairly for people’s patronage.

“They’ve been saying he’s a disaster, and that his agency is a catastrophe, for years and years,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of the advocacy group Americans for Financial Reform. “And people who don’t understand what the bureau does might believe that.

“But if you describe the bureau’s work to people,” she told me, “they overwhelmingly support it.”

For instance:

  • The CFPB fined Wells Fargo $100 million for the bank having opened unauthorized accounts on behalf of millions of customers. It fined Citigroup $28.8 million for failing to inform homeowners about ways to avoid foreclosure. It fined the credit agency Experian $3 million for deceiving people about the value of its credit scores.
  • The bureau announced earlier this month that $9 million worth of checks were in the mail to compensate 14,000 African American and Latino borrowers who were unlawfully charged higher interest or higher broker fees on mortgage loans with Provident Funding Associates.
  • Days later, the CFPB filed a lawsuit against a company called Freedom Debt Relief, the nation’s largest debt-settlement services provider. The suit alleges that Freedom charges consumers without settling their debts, misleads them about fees and fails to inform them of their rights.

In total, the bureau estimates it has returned about $12 billion to consumers over the six years it’s been operating.

That’s what drives financial firms completely bonkers. It’s new for them to have a federal agency dedicated solely to protecting consumers from unfair, predatory or illegal practices. So they’ve prodded their Republican friends on Capitol Hill to do something about it.

Those lawmakers, in turn, have produced various pieces of legislation running the gamut from crippling the CFPB’s regulatory authority to completely doing away with the agency.

I sat down with Cordray when he visited Los Angeles a few months ago. I asked if it bothered him that his critics so blatantly misrepresent his and his bureau’s accomplishments.

He replied, as he always does, that his critics are free to say what they like. His job is to watch consumers’ backs.

"People are entitled to, and they deserve, someone to make sure these markets are fair and transparent," Cordray told me. "There's a need for this agency. And there's more work to do."

He said in an email to CFPB staffers Wednesday that “we have made a real and lasting difference that has improved people’s lives.”

“I trust that new leadership will see that value also and work to preserve it — perhaps in different ways than before, but desiring, as I have done, to serve in ways that benefit and strengthen our economy and our country.”

Cordray is more optimistic than I am. It seems likely that Trump will appoint someone who will be a consumer watchdog in name only, someone who will prove a valued friend to the industries he or she is tasked with overseeing.

One scary thought: Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Financial Services Committee. He announced last month that he won’t seek reelection in 2018.

“A number of people in my world have said he could be angling for the CFPB job,” said Donner at Americans for Financial Reform.

Hensarling is the author of the Financial Choice Act, which would, among other things, allow the president to fire the CFPB director at will, rather than the current standard that the bureau chief must be found guilty of "inefficiency, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office."

It would strip the bureau of its authority to monitor the day-to-day activities of financial firms and prohibit it from cracking down on practices deemed unfair, deceptive or abusive. The bill also would shut down the bureau's database of consumer complaints, which contains more than 700,000 searchable listings.

"I can't do a good James Brown, but I feel good," Hensarling said as he and his Republican colleagues on the Financial Services Committee cast their votes in favor of the Financial Choice Act in May.

Again, the CFPB has recovered $12 billion that had been questionably or illegally taken from consumers by banks, credit card issuers, payday lenders and other firms under its authority.

The thought that Trump is about to change that should make all of us break out in a cold sweat.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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