If you are in the habit of watching cable news or the History channel, you probably have seen the ads: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the ads say, wastes money on lavish buildings and salaries, operates in a “plantation” atmosphere and is accountable to no one.
The ads then ask you to call U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and tell him to do something about reforming the CFPB.
And you may have wondered: Who is behind all of those ads? But you won’t find out.
Perhaps you also have wondered: Are the claims in those ads true? Ah, there we can help you.
By late April, 425 of those ads had run in Montana, all of them on Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and the History channel, according to the Sunlight Foundation, which does reporting that attempts to promote political and governmental transparency. The ads also had run in three other states.
Marnee Banks of Tester’s office said the senator has received hundreds of calls about the ads. The office released a statement on Wednesday saying that some claims in the ads are inaccurate.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there about the CFPB, and the important thing to remember is that it protects consumers from shady folks who want to scam them,” Tester said. “As a member of the Banking Committee, I will continue to hold the Bureau accountable to ensure it’s doing the job that it’s supposed to.”
The bureau, aimed at protecting the interests of consumers, was created as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009. House Republicans opposed the bill 173-3. Republican senators opposed it 38-3.
Since then, Republicans have opposed the bureau at every turn. President Obama’s original candidate for director of the bureau was Elizabeth Warren, who first proposed the bureau. Her candidacy was withdrawn because of Republican opposition, and she later was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Obama used a recess appointment to name Richard Cordray as director of the bureau, but after extensive filibustering the Senate did not vote to confirm him until 2013. A poll last year by Lake Research Partners found that 75 percent of Americans supported the bureau’s work, including 66 percent of Republicans.
According to the Democratic Policy and Communications Center, Montanans filed 264 complaints with the CFPB in 2014. More than a third of those involved debt collection problems. About 22 percent had to do with credit reports or credit scores, and another 20 percent involved mortgage problems.
But Republicans have continued to seek ways to limit the effectiveness of the bureau, including passing or proposing laws to replace its director with a five-member panel, to subject it to the congressional appropriations process and to eliminate a fund used to compensate consumers who have been defrauded.
Business interests also are attacking the bureau. According to Bloomberg, a case before the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals challenges a $109 million penalty against a New Jersey mortgage lender. In a separate case, a federal judge rejected a decision by the Financial Stability Oversight Council, another part of Dodd-Frank, subjecting MetLife to increased financial regulatory requirements.
The ads calling for CFPB reforms were placed by a group called Protect America’s Consumers, which filed as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit in November. According to a press release from the group, the ads that began running in February were aimed at Montana, West Virginia, North Dakota and Indiana.
“The ads also urge the taxpayers in those states to contact Senators Donnelly, Tester, Heitkamp and Manchin to encourage them to reform the CFPB,” the news release said.
Sen. Tester, Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., all serve on the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., serves on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
According to the Sunlight Foundation, Protect America’s Consumers website is registered to Whoisguard Protected, a website that exists to keep domain owners’ names private.
The online news site Politico reported that the group’s registered address is that of a lawyer who has been linked to groups backed by the Koch brothers.
A later report in Politico said, “The organization still won’t say who’s behind it. The address on its Virginia incorporation record matches the law firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky, which specializes in untraceable pressure groups for conservative causes and whose clients include Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign and the National Republican Congressional Committee.”
The name of Steve Gates appeared as a spokesman for the group in early press releases. He denied to Politico any connection with the Koch brothers and said that the names of those behind the site were not listed to avoid claims of partisanship.
Politico said that Gates previously handled communications for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. ACCCE contracted with a company that was called before a congressional hearing for attempting to influence legislation by mailing fraudulent letters indicating they came from veterans, minorities and senior groups.
Gates also contracted with the Lincoln Strategy Group, which has been accused of deceptive practices and tampering with voter registration rolls.
Concerns also have been raised about Protect America’s Consumers ads. For example, one ad quoted three Democratic congressmen as complaining about the CFPB, but all three issued statements saying that they supported the bureau and that their comments were taken out of context. All three also signed a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking it to examine the group’s ads and its nonprofit status.
“The quote is blatantly out of context,” said Brett Morrow, communications director for Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. “Congressman Ellison supports the CFPB and always has. This is the work of an ‘astroturf’ group–a fake grass-roots group–that is trying deceive the American people into abandoning the protections of the CFPB from predatory products and unscrupulous actors.”
Another ad claims that the cost of renovating the CFPB building in Washington, D.C., was greater than the cost of building the lavish Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. The ad says the cost went from an initial estimate of $55 million to more than $216 million.
But the Office of the Inspector General wrote in a 2014 report that the $55 million was only for the first year of a 10-year remodeling project. The $216 million figure included all construction costs, plus construction management costs, fees paid to the General Services Administration, moving costs, temporary office space and other expenses not normally considered part of construction costs.
An article by Bloomberg computed the actual cost of the renovating the rundown building on G Street, when adjusted for inflation, at less than the cost of the Bellagio or of Trump Tower, even if one accepts arguably inflated figures calculated by conservative groups.
According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Bellagio hotel cost $2.3 billion to build.
The ads’ claims that the CFPB is unaccountable were disputed by Tester’s office, which pointed out that the director of the bureau is required to report twice a year to each house of Congress. The report includes summaries of the bureau’s regulatory activities and its proposed budgets.
The CFPB is funded through the Federal Reserve System, and its expenses are limited by law to no more than 12 percent of the Reserve’s expenses. An annual audit of the bureau is required by law, and that audit is submitted to Congress.
The Reserve System itself is self-funded, largely through income from federal securities such as government bonds.
Relying largely on reports from the Washington Examiner, a conservative publication owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz, the ads also target high salaries at the CFPB. Anschutz is familiar to Billings residents as the owner of a company that abandoned plans for oil development in Weatherman Draw in 2002.
According to the Examiner, “Fifty-six CFPB officers earn more than all presidential cabinet secretaries who earn $199,500.”
“There are 173 agency staff who earn more than all elected Members of Congress,” the Examiner reported, “and 209 employees who earn more than all 50 U.S. governors. … Fourteen agency staffers are paid more than Vice President Biden who earns $227,000.”
One reason the salaries are high is that they are tied to Federal Reserve salaries rather than to the general federal government salary schedule. Defenders of the CFPB argue that the salaries are needed to attract employees capable of dealing with complex financial issues.
According to a 2014 report by the House Financial Services Committee, average pay at the bureau was $142,000 a year, more than three times the average American’s pay. Proposed legislation to tie CFPB salaries to the general government salary schedule has been stalled in the House.
Indeed.com, an online jobs site that relies on voluntary disclosures of pay, says that salaries at the CFPB range from about $44,000 to nearly $264,000.
Other ads essentially accuse the director, Richard Cordray, of using his position to feather his own nest. One ad says that Cordray accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from trial lawyers by funneling them through the Ohio Democratic Party when he was an elected official there. He is paying the lawyers back with proposed rules that would prevent financial firms from using arbitration clauses to block customers from filing class-action lawsuits, Protecting America’s Consumers claims.
The ads also claim, correctly, that some CFPB employees have complained about discrimination at the bureau. According to the political paper The Hill, a former employee testified before a House subcommittee in 2014 that black employees were treated as if they were on a “plantation,” including stereotypical offers of fried chicken in lunches. Another employee complained that working there was a “living hell.”
A 2014 story by American Banker, based on confidential agency data, said that white employees at CFPB were twice as likely in 2013 to receive top performance ratings as African-American or Hispanic employees. Anonymous sources said, according to the report, “Inside the agency, morale is poor and management has been accused in several cases of favoring Caucasian men and of creating a hostile work environment.”
According to the National Law Journal, Cordray told the committee in 2014, “We have found that we did not get everything right for our own employees” in the push to get the agency going.”
Still, the ads by Protect America’s Consumers have drawn enough criticism that even some sympathetic groups are keeping their distance. The U.S. Consumer Coalition, which has its own plan to reform the CFPB, has disavowed the ads.
“USCC is not aware of who is behind this attempt to trade on USCC’s successful CFPB reform campaign, the Consumer Protection Initiative,” a statement said.
An opposing website, Protect Consumers from Protect America’s Consumers, has been set up by two progressive reform groups, Allied Progress and American Family Values.
But love the ads or hate them, they are not going away. A June 2 news release said the group is launching a broadcast and cable TV “advertising blitz” to further highlight CFPB’s problems. The ads are scheduled to run in Ohio, the District of Columbia, North Dakota, West Virginia, Indiana and, yes, Montana.