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‘The fish rots from the head down’: Former consumer protection bureau chief fires back at Trump successor

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney arrives to speak to the media at the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in November after being named acting bureau director by President Trump. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Richard Cordray, the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, lashed out at his successor on Wednesday, calling Mick Mulvaney a “squatter.”

Cordray unleashed a battle for leadership of the agency in November when he stepped down and said his chief of staff Leandra English would serve as acting director in his place. Hours later, President Trump appointed Mulvaney, the White House budget director, to the job.

English has sued, arguing that she is the true acting director, but as the case makes it way through the courts, Mulvaney has taken several steps to remake the watchdog agency. In a memo to bureau staffers, Mulvaney pledged this week to tone down the CFPB’s regulatory and enforcement efforts.

“It is not appropriate for any government entity to ‘push the envelope’ when it comes into conflict with our citizens,” Mulvaney said in his memo. “The damage that we can do to people could linger for years and cost them their jobs, their savings, and their homes.”

“There will absolutely be times when circumstances dictate that we take dramatic action to protect consumers,“ he said. “. . . But bringing the full weight of the federal government down on the necks of the people we serve should be something that we do only reluctantly, and only when all other attempts at resolution have failed. It should be the most final of last resorts.”

The memo has drawn howls of protests from consumer advocates who say Mulvaney is attempting to gut the bureau, which was established to avert a repeat of the 2008 global financial crisis. On Wednesday, Cordray, who is running for Ohio governor, added his criticism.

“Leaked memo from the CFPB’s putative acting director says the agency will no longer ‘push the envelope’ on behalf of consumers as we did on my watch,” Cordray said on Twitter. “Did we push hard to see that people are treated fairly by big banks, debt collectors, and payday lenders? You bet we did.”

Mulvaney also announced last week that the CFPB will reconsider a wide-ranging rule targeting the billions of dollars in fees collected by payday lenders offering high-cost, short-term loans, an about-face that has also alarmed progressive groups. While a Republican congressman, Mulvaney received donations from several payday lenders, including one that the CFPB had been investigating. World Acceptance Corp. said in a statement Tuesday that the CFPB had sent the company a letter “indicating the investigation into the company’s marketing and lending practices has been completed.”

“More retreat yesterday from current squatter leadership at CFPB, this time closing an investigation into the predatory practices of a payday installment lender that had given money to the alleged acting director’s campaign,” Cordray tweeted Wednesday. “The fish rots from the head down.”

Mulvaney has previously dismissed concerns about the campaign contributions he received from payday lenders as a congressman, noting that he does not plan to run for another political office. “For the record, decisions to complete bureau investigations are made in the normal course by career enforcement staff, not the Director, and that is what occurred in this instance,” a CFPB spokesman said in a statement to American Banker. “Any suggestion that Acting Director Mulvaney had any role in the decision is simply inaccurate.”

When asked about Cordray’s criticism, Mulvaney’s spokesman did not respond directly but referred to an 1800s sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias,” about the transient state of political power:

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”