Last month, Mick Mulvaney, interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, caused a stir after telling a group of banking executives that as a South Carolina congressman he always met with constituents but met only with out-of-town lobbyists who gave him campaign money.
In the speech, Mulvaney also took aim at the consumer watchdog agency’s complaint database, which contains more than 1.5 million complaints from consumers about their credit cards, bank accounts, mortgages and other financial arrangements. “I don’t see anything in here that I have to run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government,” Mulvaney said during his address to the American Bankers Association meeting. “I don’t see anything in here that says that I have to make all of those public.”
A review of Mulvaney’s campaign contributions finds some overlap between the two issues: Eight of the 10 companies subject to the most consumer complaints about their banking practices contributed to Mulvaney's political campaigns, according to a report by Public Citizen, an liberal consumer rights group, scheduled to be released Tuesday. Nineteen of the top 30 contributed $140,500 to Mulvaney.
Equifax, which is under investigation by the CFPB after a massive data breach last year that exposed sensitive data of millions of people, has received the most complaints — 83,252, according to Public Citizen's analysis. Equifax's political action committee contributed $5,000 to Mulvaney's campaigns. An Equifax competitor, Experian, has been the subject of more than 72,000 complaints and contributed $6,000 to Mulvaney's campaigns, according to the report.
JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, the biggest banks in the country, have received more than 50,000 complaints each and contributed thousands of dollars to Mulvaney's campaigns. Mulvaney resigned from his House seat in 2016 when President Trump appointed him White House budget director.
"We cannot respond to an inquiry about a report that we have not seen," John Czwartacki, CFPB spokesman, said in a statement. "We will be happy to respond after we have had a chance to review the report."
The database, which was created in 2011, has long drawn the financial industry's ire. Industry executives say that it is full of errors and unverified complaints and that most companies already have avenues for resolving disputes with their customers. Under the law, the CFPB must maintain the database. But it is not required to make it public online, Republicans and the financial community say.
The CFPB will maintain the database as required by law, Mulvaney said at the ABA conference. But “I could make the case that ... having a database that is publicly facing, but is not completely vetted, is probably not consistent with our overall mission,” he said.
The CFPB, which asks companies to respond to complaints posted in the database within 15 days, has used the information to spot patterns of bad behavior, consumer advocates say. If it is not open to the public, companies will feel less compelled to respond to complaints, they say.
“Is it possible that Mulvaney’s horrible idea of hiding the CFPB’s complaint database is connected to the fact that the most complained-about companies contributed to him?” Michael Tanglis, senior researcher for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and author of the report, said in a statement.
As a congressman, Mulvaney was one of the CFPB's staunchest critics, and Democrats worry that he is weakening the consumer watchdog. Mulvaney has launched a top-to-bottom review of the agency's operations, slowed the pace at which it penalizes industry bad behavior and proposed that lawmakers curb the agency’s powers. He has portrayed the agency as too closely aligned with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who as a Harvard professor came up with the idea for the CFPB.
Mulvaney has even called for changing the agency's name. It should be known as the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection rather than the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he has said. Shuffling the words in the name, advocates warn, is part of an effort to play down the agency's focus on helping consumers.