What we know about the online payday lending lawsuit Mick Mulvaney ordered the CFPB to drop

In April 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued four companies, Golden Valley Lending, Silver Cloud Financial, Mountain Summit Financial, and Majestic Lake Financial, for using sham tribal-sovereignty claims to collect debts on loans that violated an array of state laws as well as the federal Truth in Lending Act.

On January 18, 2018, the bureau moved to dismiss its lawsuit. After an initial statement attributing the decision to “professional career staff,” Mick Mulvaney backtracked, acknowledging his own involvement. The case took years to build, and the idea of dropping it was opposed by the “entire career enforcement staff,” National Public Radio has reported.

Here is what we know about the companies, their operations, and the allegations against them.

Golden Valley payment schedule on an $800 loan

The four companies used their websites and online ads to make tens of millions of dollars of loans at 440% – 950% annual interest. Between August and December 2013, Silver Cloud and Golden Valley originated roughly $27 million in loans and collected $44 million from consumers. A typical $800 loan called for payments totaling approximately $3,320 over ten months — the equivalent of 875.5% annual interest. Interest rates on all the loans examined by the CFPB ranged from 440% to 950%.

The Consumer Bureau sued them for engaging in unfair, deceptive, and abusive business practices by attempting to collect payments on loans that were void in whole or part under the usury and/or licensing laws of 17 states. Their loans were illegal, according to the complaint, in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Ohio. Golden Valley and the other companies carried on with their lending and collection activities even after the Attorneys General of several states sent cease-and-desist letters.

The defendants explained their fees in confusing ways, according to the complaint, and violated the federal Truth in Lending Act by failing to disclose annual interest-rate information on their websites or in their advertising. “Each of Defendants’ websites advertises the cost of installment loans and includes a rate of finance charge but does not disclose the annual percentage rates (APR). The ‘FAQ’ section of each of the websites answers the question ‘How much does the consumer loan cost?’ by stating: ‘Our service fee is $30 per $100 loaned. This fee is charged every two weeks on your due dates, based upon the principal amount outstanding.’”

The companies were charged with violating a Truth in Lending Act requirement that all advertising for closed-end credit state finance charges in annual percentage rate terms. In addition, according to the complaint, customer service representatives consistently failed to include that information in answers to questions raised over the phone by applicants or customers.

The four companies claimed to be protected by tribal sovereign immunity. Based on ties to a small Native American tribe in Northern California, they asserted that their loans would be “governed by applicable tribal law” regardless of where the consumer “may be situated or access this site.” The companies made this claim despite a United States Supreme Court ruling in 2014 that tribes “‘going beyond reservation boundaries’ are subject to any applicable state law.’” Numerous courts have held that when a loan is made online, the transaction is considered to have taken place wherever the consumer is located at the time.

Despite recent legal victories, states can have a hard time, without federal help, going after online lenders that break state laws. Through the use of shell companies, “lead generators,” and various legal ploys, online lenders — including the companies named in this lawsuit — have been able to keep state authorities at bay for years. Whether tribal ties really give payday loan companies a right to assert sovereign immunity remains a murky legal issue: the courts have allowed some state lawsuits to proceed while blocking others. But tribal businesses cannot invoke sovereign immunity against the United States. That’s one reason why the federal government’s ability to act is so important.

Revenues from at least one of the four lenders, and from an affiliated call center, went to RM Partners, a corporation founded by the son of Richard Moseley, Sr., who was recently convicted of federal racketeering charges. Moseley Sr., a Kansas City businessman, was found guilty in November 2017 of wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and violations of the Truth in Lending Act as well as racketeering in connection with a payday lending scheme that charged illegally high interest rates and issued loans to people who had not authorized them. Over an eight-year period, according to the Justice Department, Moseley’s operation took advantage of more than 600,000 customers and generated an estimated $161 million in revenues. Moseley and his son spent some of that money on “luxuries including a vacation home in Colorado and Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, high-end automobiles, and country club membership dues.”

The business practices of Moseley’s operation and the four defendant companies closely resembled those of another Kansas payday lender, the race-car driver Scott Tucker, also recently convicted of federal racketeering charges. Like Golden Valley et al, the lending companies run by Tucker and his lawyer-partner Timothy Muir did business through a call center located in Overland Park, Kansas, and relied on a claim of tribal sovereign immunity, based in their case on ties to an Oklahoma tribe. The Tucker-Muir companies, featured in the Netflix documentary series “Dirty Money,” used similar contractual language to obscure their practice of defaulting customers into a many-months-long series of payments that got applied entirely to loan fees, making no dent in the balance.

Tucker and Muir were convicted in January 2018 of racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering, and violations of the Truth-In-Lending Act. Payments collected by Tucker’s businesses went into accounts at U.S. Bank, whose parent company, U.S. Bancorp, has agreed to pay $613 million in civil and criminal penalties for what the Justice Department described as a “highly inadequate” anti-money-laundering system that failed to flag these and other suspicious transactions. The Tucker-and-Muir story is another illustration of the need for action at the federal level if online payday lenders are to be stopped from evading state laws and continuing to exploit consumers.

— Jim Lardner

Payday Lenders Try To Fight Borrower Protections With Fake Comments

Predatory payday lenders do not like to be told how they can and can’t abuse consumers, and they fight protections every step of the way.

Months before the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau proposed a new rule in 2016 that threatens the profits of avaricious payday lenders across America, the industry’s leaders gathered at a posh resort in the Atlantis in the Bahamas to prepare for battle. One of the strategies they came up with was to send hundreds of thousands of comments supporting the industry to the consumer bureau’s website. But most of their comments, unlike those from the industry’s critics, would be fake. Made up.

Payday lenders recruited ghostwriters

They hired a team of three full-time writers to craft their own comments opposing the regulation. The result was over 200,000 comments on the consumer bureau’s website with personal testimonials about payday lending that seemed unique and not identical, supporting the payday lending industry. But if you dig a little deeper, you would find that many of them are not real.

Late last year, the Wall Street Journal and Quid Inc., a San Francisco firm that specializes in analyzing large collections of text, dug deeply. They examined the consumer bureau comments and found the exact same sentences with about 100 characters appeared more than 200 times across 200,000 comments. “I sometimes wondered how I would be able to pay for my high power bill, especially in the hot summer and cold winters” was a sentence found embedded in 492 comments. There were more: “Payday loans have helped me on multiple occasions when I couldn’t make an insurance payment,” and “This is my only good option for borrowing money, so I hope these rules don’t happen,” appeared 74 times and 295 times, respectively.

At the same time, the Journal conducted 120 email surveys of posting comments to the CFPB site. Four out of ten supposed letter-writers claimed they never sent the comment associated with them to the consumer bureau website. One lender told the Journal, for example, that despite a comment clearly made out in her name discussing the need for a payday loan to fix a car tire, she actually doesn’t pay for car issues since her family owns an auto shop. Consumer advocates had previously suggested something fishy was going on, and were vindicated by the report.

Another WSJ investigation has identified and analyzed thousands of fraudulent posts on other government websites such as Federal Communications Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, about issues like net neutrality rules, sale of the Chicago Stock Exchange, etc.

Payday lenders also forced borrowers to participate in their campaign

They had previously used this tactic to organize a letter-writing campaign in an attempt to influence local lawmakers, with forced signatures. The campaign collected signatures from borrowers to support legislations that would legalize predatory loans with triple-digit interest rates in the states. According to State Representative of Arizona Debbie McCune Davis, borrowers were forced to sign the letter as part of their loan application. Some did not even recall they signed the letters.

Fast forward back to the consumer bureau’s proposed payday lending rule, and some trade association websites were used to spread comments praising the industry with borrowers’ names who actually had nothing to do with it. Carla Morrison of Rhodes, Iowa, said she got a $323 payday loan and ended up owning more than $8,000 through a payday lender. “I most definitely think they should be regulated,” Morrison said, after she knew payday lenders used her name to fraudulently praise the industry. The truth is, Morrison’s comment originated from a trade association website, IssueHound and TelltheCFPB.com, which the payday-lending trade group, Community Financial Services Association of America, used to forwarded comments on payday-lending rule, with no clue these comments were fake. “I’m very disappointed, and it is not at all the outcome we expected,” said Dennis Shaul, the trade group’s CEO.

Payday lenders even tricked their own employees

In Clovis, Calif Payday lender California Check Cashing Stores asked its employees to fill out an online survey after too few customers did. In the survey, Ashley Marie Mireles, one of the employees said she received a payday loan for “car bills” to pay for patching a tire. The truth was she never paid the bill because her family owns an auto shop where she doesn’t have to pay.

Fake names, ghostwriters, and forced signatures. Payday-lenders financed a process of driving fraudulent material to stop regulation curbing the industry’s abuses. It wasn’t enough that they’re running an industry based on the immoral notion of trapping borrowers into a cycle of debt where they cannot escape, targeting the most financially vulnerable communities. Apparently, these voracious payday lenders will do anything to fight protections for consumers.

The consumer bureau has since issued a final rule this past October, with protections for borrowers going into effect in 2019.

The Constitutionality of an Independent CFPB – What the Second Circuit Said

On January 31, a federal appellate court upheld the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) as an independent regulatory agency with a director who can be dismissed only for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” That structure — spelled out in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law of 2010 — had been challenged by a New Jersey mortgage lender in a lawsuit contesting a CFPB enforcement action over kickbacks and inflated fees. The D.C. Court of Appeals rejected PHH’s argument.

“Congress’s decision to provide the CFPB Director a degree of insulation reflects its permissible judgment that civil regulation of consumer financial protection should be kept one step removed from political winds and presidential will,” the court ruled. “We have no warrant here to invalidate such a time-tested course. No relevant consideration gives us reason to doubt the constitutionality of the independent CFPB’s single-member structure.”

Here are some key points made in the majority opinion by Judge Cornelia Pillard:

Congress had sound reasons for deciding on a single director rather than a commission, and for shielding the CFPB director against dismissal without cause.

Congress designed an agency with a single Director, rather than a multi-member body, to imbue the agency with the requisite initiative and decisiveness to do the job of monitoring and restraining abusive or excessively risky practices in the fast-changing world of consumer finance… A single Director would also help the new agency become operational promptly, as it might have taken many years to confirm a full quorum of a multi-member body.”

“By providing the Director with a fixed term and for-cause protection, Congress sought to promote stability and confidence in the country’s financial system.”

There are many legal precedents for this kind of protection.

The [Supreme] Court has held, time and again, that while the Constitution broadly vests executive power in the President, U.S. Const. art. II, § 1, cl. 1, that does not require that the President have at-will authority to fire every officer.”

The “removal restriction” established for the CFPB “is wholly ordinary.” The language of the statute is identical to that of a law “approved by the Supreme Court back in 1935 in Humphrey’s Executor and reaffirmed ever since.”

There is nothing in the Constitution or case law to suggest that an independent agency needs a “multi-headed structure” for the sake of accountability.

That argument “finds no footing in precedent, historical practice, constitutional principle, or the logic of presidential removal power.”

The CFPB is not uniquely powerful or free of restraint.

“Today’s independent agencies are diverse in structure and function…. [T]he CFPB’s power and influence are not out of the ordinary for a financial regulator or, indeed, any type of independent administrative agency.”

A single director is in some respects easier to hold accountable.

“Decisional responsibility is clear now that there is one, publicly identifiable face of the CFPB who stands to account—to the President, the Congress, and the people— for all its consumer protection actions. The fact that the Director stands alone atop the agency means he cannot avoid scrutiny through finger-pointing, buck-passing, or sheer anonymity. “

Effective mechanisms exist for holding the CFPB accountable. Its actions are subject to veto by the Financial Stability Oversight Council and to review by the courts.

The Second Circuit has itself affirmed a lower court’s decision to overturn a $109 million penalty imposed on PHH, agreeing that the CFPB misinterpreted the law. “The now-reinstated panel holding that invalidated the disgorgement penalties levied against PHH… illustrates how courts appropriately guard the liberty of regulated parties when agencies overstep.”

The budgetary autonomy given to the CFPB is also not unique.

Congress has provided similar independence to other financial regulators, like the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the National Credit Union Administration, and the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which all have complete, uncapped budgetary autonomy.”

There is a long tradition of taking extra measures to ensure the independence of financial oversight agencies.

“[T]he CFPB Director’s autonomy is consistent with a longstanding tradition of independence for financial regulators, and squarely supported by established precedent. The CFPB’s budgetary independence, too, is traditional among financial regulators, including in combination with typical removal constraints. PHH’s constitutional challenge flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s removal-power cases, and calls into question the structure of a host of independent agencies that make up the fabric of the administrative state.”

“That independence shields the nation’s economy from manipulation or self-dealing by political incumbents and enables [independent] agencies to pursue the general public interest in the nation’s longer-term economic stability and success, even where doing so might require action that is politically unpopular in the short term.”

The CFPB’s structure poses no threat to normal presidential authority over “core executive” functions. But if the courts accepted PHH’s arguments against the CFPB, the whole idea of independent regulatory agencies would be threatened.

“The threat PHH’s challenge poses to the established validity of other independent agencies, meanwhile, is very real. PHH seeks no mere course correction; its theory, uncabined by any principled distinction between this case and Supreme Court precedent sustaining independent agencies, leads much further afield. Ultimately, PHH makes no secret of its wholesale attack on independent agencies—whether collectively or individually led—that, if accepted, would broadly transform modern government.”

“The President’s plenary authority over his cabinet and most executive agencies is
obvious and remains untouched by our decision. It is PHH’s unmoored theory of liberty that threatens to lead down a dangerously slippery slope.”

The CFPB has become the “Corporate Financial Protection Bureau”

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley yesterday warned that Mick Mulvaney’s actions as the unlawful acting head  of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is destroying the bureau’s ability to stop predatory lending – the infamous “debt trap.”

“The CFPB has become the ‘Corporate Financial Protection Bureau’ under Mick Mulvaney as it abandons efforts to stop the debt trap,” Merkley said in a call with reporters.

Merkley spoke on a call organized by the Center for Responsible Lending and Americans for Financial Reform. Merkley was joined by Rev. Willie Gable Jr., head pastor at the Progressive Baptist Church in New Orleans, Yana Miles, senior legislative counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, and Jose Alcoff, from the Stop The Debt Trap campaign.

Payday lending involves small-dollar loans at exorbitant interest rates, averaging 391 percent APR nationally, with rates regularly reaching or exceeding 500 percent and even 1,000 percent APR. These loans trap borrowers into a cycle of debt where they cannot escape, targeting the most financially vulnerable communities.

This predatory business model is designed to target the poor, and keep them in the cycle of debt,” Gable said.

Contrary to consumer bureau’s mission, Mulvaney has dropped cases against lenders that either charge illegal annual interest rates of up to 950 percent in 17 states, and have a long track record of abusing consumers. One of these lenders, the World Acceptance Corp,  had donated $4,500 to Mulvaney’s past election campaigns .

Long before Mulvaney joined the White House as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, he was a shill for payday loan sharks, an industry that has fought the consumer bureau tooth and nail since the agency started, and is now trying to cash in on the Trump administration. Mulvaney took $63,000 from them over the course of his election campaigns.

Hacking away the consumer bureau’s efforts to stop payday lending is only one of the ways Mulvaney has harmed consumers during the 75 days since President Trump installed him as the bureau’s acting head. “His continued effort to undermine the integrity of the consumer bureau will have lasting and damaging effects on working families across the country,” Miles said.

Merkley said that Mulvaney is “blatantly trying to dismantle the bureau from the inside,” and called on supporters of the bureau to fight back.

“If this isn’t a crystal-clear example of the Trump administration governing of, by, and for the powerful rather than of, by, and for the people, then I don’t know what is,” Merkley said. “This is exactly the opposite of what Trump promised during his election campaign. He is standing up for predatory Wall Street practices, instead of standing up for our working Americans. We need to change that.”

A majority of Americans, including coalition of congregations, civil rights groups, unions, consumer advocates, and others, would like to see consumer bureau’s work continue, according to a poll released by AFR and CRL. Mulvaney needs to let the consumer bureau do the excellent job it did under the previous director. “Trump needs to nominate a director with a track record of protecting consumers, one who can earn bipartisan support in the Senate,” Alcoff said.