Lobbyist Pawlenty Rankles Banks in Consumer Bureau Battle

Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor turned bank lobbyist, is backing down from an election-style campaign against the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after complaints from the firms he represents.

Pawlenty’s group, the Financial Services Roundtable, started a website and bought ads on billboards and social media, attacking a website the regulator uses to collect complaints about banks and other financial-services providers.

The move raised objections among roundtable members such as JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc., who weren’t consulted on the campaign, according to four people briefed on the debate within the organization. The banks didn’t want to needlessly antagonize an agency that polices them, the people said.

They told Pawlenty and his staff they didn’t like the media blitz, or the fact that Pawlenty didn’t consult them before starting it, the people said. Some members apologized to the bureau for the campaign, and said they didn’t approve it, two people briefed on the talks said.

Pawlenty got the message.

“We don’t have any more plans for a public process,” he said in an interview.

He conceded that the roundtable’s membership wasn’t fully behind him on the campaign. “Some members had anxiety,” Pawlenty said. “It involved some risk.”

Molly Millerwise Meiners, a spokeswoman for Citigroup, Betty Riess, a spokeswoman for Bank of America, and JPMorgan’s Patricia Wexler all declined to comment.

Banks’ Reluctance

The reluctance of banks to publicly confront the consumer bureau stems from its popularity, and their own reputational troubles, said two of the people, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Banks often hire former politicians to handle government relations, and trade groups often say publicly what the banks themselves don’t want to.

For two years after the consumer bureau was created in 2010, bankers and their lobbyists testified in Congress and called for major changes to the agency, but since then they’ve focused on private meetings and the normal regulatory process. They drew a distinction between that approach and public attacks on the regulator in social media and on billboards.

Republicans, Democrats and independents all support the consumer bureau by large majorities, according to a July poll by Lake Research, while banks -- especially those associated with Wall Street -- are unpopular, nearly six years after the peak of the financial crisis.

Presidential Campaign

Pawlenty, who was governor of Minnesota from 2003 to 2011, sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 before he dropped out and became co-chairman of Mitt Romney’s campaign. He left the campaign for the roundtable post two months before the November 2012 election.

The clash over the consumer bureau campaign was surprising given that Pawlenty has been given high marks by members for overhauling the organization since taking over, the people said. He fired lobbyist Scott Talbott, the group’s longtime public face in Washington, brought in new policy experts and hired a media team.

The focus of Pawlenty’s campaign was the consumer bureau’s three-year-old online system for taking in complaints and publishing data -- including company names -- about bank accounts, credit cards, credit bureaus and debt collectors. It followed objections to a change, proposed in July, that would have the agency begin publishing individual consumer narratives of their gripes with banks and other service providers.

Detect Patterns

Since July 2013, the bureau has taken in about 288,000 complaints about banks, credit bureaus and debt collectors on its website, and it began publishing them about a year later. The resulting database includes the name of the company, the general subject of the complaint and the consumer’s Zip code.

Consumer Bureau Director Richard Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general, has said the database is one of the best things the agency has done. He said the complaints are being used to detect patterns of consumer harm.

At a meeting of agency’s consumer advisory board on Sept. 11, Cordray lauded the system for “playing a tangible role in producing a shift in the financial industry toward more emphasis on excellent customer service.”

Francis Creighton, the roundtable’s executive vice president for government affairs, said the industry doesn’t oppose publishing the data, only the narratives.

“The database out there now is serving the needs of the regulator and consumers,” Creighton said. “I don’t see what this will do other than harm our companies.”

On its new website, cfpbrumors.com, the roundtable attacked the agency over plans to publish the narratives, saying it will spread potentially false information with the government’s imprimatur. Cordray has said that the system is no different that those used by agencies with jurisdiction over other industries.

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