What Will Become of the CFPB’s Case Against Santander?

More eyes than ever will be on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, now that a federal judge has refused to immediately block the Trump Administration’s effort to install OMB director Mick Mulvaney as acting director. One thing to watch will be the fate of a planned lawsuit against the U.S. arm of the Spanish megabank Santander.

The agency was reportedly on the brink of filing such an action last week. Its lawsuit, according to Reuters, would accuse Santander of overcharging customers on auto loans through the aggressive marketing of an often unneeded add-on product known as “Guaranteed Auto Protection” or GAP insurance.

Santander has a long rap sheet. Over the past few years, the bank has been investigated for a variety of offenses by a variety of agencies, with corroborating testimony from its own employees in a few cases.

In 2015 the CFPB hit Santander with a $10 million fine for deceptively marketing so-called overdraft “protection” and signing up customers without their consent. (Santander blamed the problems on a contract telemarketer.) Also that year, the company agreed to pay more than $9 million to settle a Justice Department lawsuit over the illegal repossession of cars belonging to members of the military. In another troubling story, Santander call-center workers complained about being pressured into predatory lending and debt-collection practices and not being given the time or support to treat customers fairly.

What will happen with the auto-loan case? Here are a few grounds for concern.

Mulvaney, in his congressional days, belonged to a bloc of lawmakers known for taking the financial industry’s campaign money (more than a quarter of a million dollars over four successful House campaigns) and parroting its talking points. He has described the Consumer Bureau as a sick joke and backed legislation to abolish it. A longtime Mulvaney aide, Natalee Binkholder, recently went to work for Santander as a lobbyist. In that capacity, she was deeply involved in Wall Street’s successful effort to get Congress to oveturn a CFPB rule guaranteeing the right of consumers to band together and take banks to court over accusations of systematic illegality.

By the time Mulvaney made his first appearance at the bureau Monday morning, an acting director, Leandra English, was already in place. The White House, in announcing Mulvaney’s appointment, cited a quickie legal ruling from the Justice Department in favor of the President’s right to name someone — despite language to the contrary in the Dodd-Frank Act, which set up the agency. (The DOJ opinion, we now learn, was written by an assistant attorney general who just a year ago represented an offshore payday lender facing a CFPB lawsuit.)

The CFPB was the first federal financial regulator with a mandate to put the interests of consumers ahead of the power and profitability of banks. In its short life, the agency has delivered $12 billion in financial relief to more than 29 million wronged consumers. It has stood up for the victims of for-profit colleges, defended veterans and servicemembers against financial scams, gone to bat for the victims of fraudulent for-profit colleges, and made Wells Fargo pay $100 million in penalties for opening millions of bogus accounts.

The immediate question is about the Bureau’s leadership. The bigger question is whether this vitally important agency will be allowed to go on doing its job.

— Jim Lardner

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