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CFPB Chief Mick Mulvaney Wants To Shut Public Access To Consumer Complaints Database


The Trump administration's top consumer protection official says he may shut down public access to a popular government database that Americans use to complain about banks. The industry likes the move, but consumer groups say it is pandering to the companies that the agency is supposed to be policing. NPR's Chris Arnold is following this and joins us now. Hey, Chris.


SHAPIRO: So we're talking about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which of course was set up under the Obama administration, is now run by one of its top opponents. What is the latest development?

ARNOLD: Right. So this is this watchdog agency, like you said, that was set up after the financial crisis. And right now it's being run by this very controversial interim director. It's former Republican Congressman Mick Mulvaney. And the reason he's controversial is that back when he was in Congress, he actually sponsored legislation to abolish the very bureau that President Trump has now appointed him to be running, so that raised a lot of eyebrows. And he's made a bunch of moves that have gotten consumer advocates upset - for example, dropping a predatory lending lawsuit and a bunch of other things. And just yesterday, he got up in front of a group of bankers and suggested that he might take this online complaint database and hide those complaints from public view.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about this complaint database where the public can actually express concerns about financial institutions.

ARNOLD: Sure. So the idea behind it is to hold financial firms accountable. So let's say I'm refinancing my house, and I have just this terrible experience with Chase Bank or Wells Fargo. I can go online and file a complaint. And Americans together have filed more than a million of these complaints now. And regulators can use that and say, hey, look; there's all of these complaints about this particular thing that this one financial institution is doing. Maybe we should go launch investigation into that or something. And as another form of holding firms accountable, the public, too, can see all these complaints online.

SHAPIRO: I can understand why the banks wouldn't like that. But why would Mick Mulvaney say we should shut this down?

ARNOLD: Well, what he said at this American Bankers Association conference - he talked about these complaints not being, quote, "completely vetted." And he said in looking at the law that created the consumer bureau, he said, I don't see anything in here that says that I have to, quote, "run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government."

SHAPIRO: Is it fair to describe this as a Yelp, like, basically a consumer review site for financial services?

ARNOLD: Well, you know, like we said, no. I mean, Yelp doesn't go and make sure that the person actually ate at the restaurant and other sites. It's not like a direct parallel. But I think that this is the way the industry sees it, or at least it's one of the problems that it has.

And we spoke to Kim Gustafson, who's an executive at Fortis Private Bank in Denver. She was at the conference, and she said that she likes generally what Mulvaney has been doing at the bureau and says that she does have some issues with all this information being public.

KIM GUSTAFSON: There are a lot of comments on there that are just really people's feelings about something without any substantiated facts or actual complaints around a specific issue.

SHAPIRO: This seems like the latest concern for consumer protection groups that have had a lot of concerns about Mulvaney.

ARNOLD: Right. I talked to Karl Frisch today. He's with the group Allied Progress. It's a consumer advocacy group. He is not happy about this.

KARL FRISCH: Daylight is a great disinfectant. And, you know, the American people have a right to know when tens of thousands of their fellow citizens are complaining about a financial institution. For example, the CFBP received tens of thousands of complaints about Wells Fargo, and that issue is now being resolved.

ARNOLD: We should be clear here that Mulvaney says he'll keep the database running for the bureau's investigators, but he's considering closing off public access to the complaints. And Frisch says, though, that that would be bad because academics, journalists, consumer groups like his - they should be able to have access to this information, too.

SHAPIRO: Chris, I have to ask you about something unrelated to the database that Mulvaney said at this banker's conference yesterday that made a lot of news. He said that when he was a congressman, he only took meetings with lobbyists who donated to his campaign.

ARNOLD: Right. And the full part of what he said - to be fair to him - is he said, look; if you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn't talk to you. If you were a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you. If you came from back home and sat in my lobby, I talked to you without exception regardless of financial contributions. So that was the full quote, but the first half of that got picked up. And people were saying, look; you're basically acknowledging a pay-to-play kind of thing here where you'd only talk to lobbyists who gave you money.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Chris Arnold. Thanks, Chris.

ARNOLD: Absolutely, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 24, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this headline and Web introduction said Mick Mulvaney wants to get rid of the database of consumer complaints against banks. Mulvaney actually said the database should not be public.
NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.
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