Democratic state AGs move to defend consumer watchdog

AP News
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Posted: Jan 23, 2017 7:10 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorneys general from 16 states and the District of Columbia are seeking to defend a U.S. consumer watchdog agency in court amid speculation that President Donald Trump may fire its director, Richard Cordray.

The attorneys general, all Democrats, said in a court filing Monday they have "a vital interest in defending an independent and effective" Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and are seeking to intervene in a case over whether its structure is constitutional.

They said it's urgent for them to intervene because Trump as a candidate expressed opposition to the 2010 law that created the CFPB while tightening regulation of the financial industry.

A federal appeals court ruled in October that the agency's structure violates the Constitution's separation of powers by limiting the president's ability to remove the agency's director. That ruling is being appealed by the CFPB.

The attorneys general, led by George Jepsen of Connecticut, noted that they have often brought legal actions in coordination with the federal agency. If the court ruling were allowed to stand, their power to protect consumers against abuse would be undermined, they argued.

The independent agency has been swept up in partisan politics since its creation to protect consumers from harmful banking and lending practices. Wall Street interests, the banking and consumer finance industries and Republicans in Congress have opposed and criticized the agency.

The law creating the CFPB after the 2008-09 financial crisis says its director can only be removed "for cause," such as neglect of duty, and not over political differences. In its ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said that conflicts with the Constitution, which allows the president to remove executives for any reason.

That problem can be solved, the court said, by taking out the "for cause" provision — giving the president the power to remove the director at will.

After Trump won election, some Republican lawmakers urged him to fire Cordray, a Democrat and Obama appointee whose five-year term doesn't end until next year.

Trump pledged during the campaign to dismantle the Dodd-Frank law, which tightened supervision of Wall Street and the banking industry in the wake of the crisis and created the CFPB.

"Contrary to his populist rhetoric, the president's failure to support the CFPB would be a gift to powerful financial interests and a bitter broken promise to regular Americans he vowed to defend," Jepsen said in a statement.

The CFPB has taken legal action against banks, mortgage companies, credit card issuers, payday lenders, debt collectors and others. The agency says that over five years it has recovered $11.7 billion that it returned to more than 27 million harmed consumers.

Some Democratic lawmakers also have warned recently against a possible move by Trump against Cordray. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the Democrats' fiercest critic of Wall Street, told reporters in a conference call last week that firing Cordray "would be a huge handout to lobbyists for the big banks."

In addition to Jepsen, the attorneys general asking to intervene in the case are from Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

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This story has been corrected to clarify that the attorneys general are from 16 states and the District of Columbia, not 17 states.