CFPB official tries to defuse furor over his ‘provocative’ writings

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A top political appointee at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sought to defend himself Monday over his incendiary writings 14 years ago that have caused an uproar at the agency.

Eric Blankenstein, the CFPB’s policy director of supervision, enforcement and fair lending, said in an email to staff that he regrets his "choice of words." Blankenstein has come under fire for blog posts in which he suggested that people who use racial slurs are not necessarily racist and that most hate crimes were “hoaxes.”

“The tone and framing of my statements reflected poor judgment,” Blankenstein wrote in the email to the bureau’s staff, which was obtained by American Banker. “Do I regret some of the things I wrote when I was 25—relatively fresh out of college and not yet even thinking about applying to law school—that I wouldn’t write today? Absolutely. I recognize that many of you had a visceral, negative reaction to reading what I wrote in some of my old blog posts. I did too.”

Since the blog posts were first revealed in a Washington Post report last week, two senior CFPB officials have raised objections to Blankenstein, suggesting he is no longer qualified to be the agency's top enforcer of anti-discrimination laws.

Around the same time that Blankenstein sent out his email, the CFPB’s chief of staff, Kirsten Sutton, sent a message to staff affirming the agency's commitment to diversity.

“I want to remind everyone that we have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to discrimination, harassment and retaliation,” wrote Sutton, a political appointee and a former House Financial Services Committee staff director and aide to Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Tex. “The Bureau values diversity in viewpoints, backgrounds, and walks of life.”

Still, while Blankenstein said his views could have been expressed better, he did not renounce them.

Instead, he tried to explain that the blog, “Two Guys Chatting,” which he had founded with a friend in 2004, was intended to frame relevant issues of the day. He acknowledged that it was "provocative."

“We hoped that publishing those frank conversations would show that difficult topics could be discussed openly and in depth so long as the parties came to the conversation in good faith,” he wrote in the email to staff. “I unfortunately used intentionally provocative language in an effort to accentuate my points.”

Blankenstein, a University of Virginia graduate, used a moniker in the blog similar to his assigned student email.

He wrote in a 2004 post: “Fine…let’s say they called him a n----, would that make them racists, or just a-----s looking for the most convenient way to get under his skin?”

The blog spelled out the racial slur.

Blankenstein, a political appointee hired earlier this year by acting CFPB Director Mick Mulvaney, said he included the racial epithet "only in the context of discussing the insight its use by a hypothetical third person could give us into that person’s thought process.”

“I have never used and will never use a racial epithet to describe anyone," he wrote. "Poor judgment in my choice of words back then, or how I framed my arguments, does not make me a racist or a sexist, and I have always rejected racism and sexism in the strongest terms possible.”

Yet it is unclear if Blankenstein's email will quell the uproar that ensued after his past writings were publicized. Several top officials at the agency have spoken up on the matter, saying they found the writings unacceptable.

Earlier Monday, Christopher D'Angelo, the CFPB's associate director for supervision, enforcement and fair lending, sent an email to staff stating: "Hate speech cannot be tolerated."

"The suggestion that a racial slur is intended to do anything other than demean and oppress on the basis of race undermines constructive discourse and is inconsistent with the consumer protection and fair lending mandates of the Bureau," D'Angelo wrote, saying he had raised concerns with Mulvaney.

D'Angelo also expressed support for CFPB staff.

"I also know some have felt chilled in their ability to speak out, threatened by the language used in Eric's blog posts, his affirmation of those posts in his public statement, and his failure to denounce those statements or acknowledge their hurtful nature, D'Angelo wrote. "Please know that I, and the rest of your colleagues, hear you even in your silence."

Patrice Ficklin, the CFPB’s assistant director of fair lending and equal opportunity, was the first senior CFPB official to denounce Blankenstein's writings, followed by Kirsten Donoghue, the CFPB’s assistant director of enforcement, who said her feelings were shared by the entire enforcement division of roughly 100 attorneys.

“This morning I met with Eric to express my concern,” Donoghue wrote in an email Friday to staff. “I have also spoken to Patrice to express my support and to let her know that I, and Enforcement, stand with her and her team. As I told her, this is not just her issue, or just a fair lending issue. It is an issue for all of us.”

Before joining the bureau, Blankenstein spent six months as an assistant general counsel in the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, and had been a lawyer for eight years at Williams & Connelly. At the bureau, he has been spearheading the CFPB’s review of outstanding enforcement actions and non-public investigations.

Blankenstein acknowledged in his email that reading his past writings was eye-opening.

“Going back and reading what I wrote fourteen years ago was a humbling experience: my 39 year old self wants to tell my 25 year old self to be less strident, less provocative, less snarky, and less absolutist,” he wrote. “Be more precise and careful in the language you use. But, most importantly, I want my 25 year old self to be more empathetic to those situations of who are suffering and hurting.”

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