Warren leads Democratic call to reconsider another CFPB hire

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WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers are calling on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to reconsider the hiring of Paul Watkins as the assistant director of the innovation office, following reports he worked for a group deemed by some as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Katie Porter, D-Calif., told CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger in a letter Tuesday that they are concerned about Watkins’ fitness for his job considering the discretion his position has to exempt certain companies from complying with anti-discrimination laws.

"Mr. Watkins' role at the CFPB gives him wide discretion to exempt companies — or even entire industries — from anti-discrimination laws and given his past work at a homophobic hate group, we are deeply concerned that he will use this power to scrap crucial protections for the LGBTQ consumers," the lawmakers said. "We therefore ask that you reconsider his employment and his role at the bureau."

From 2012 to 2014, Watkins worked for Alliance Defending Freedom’s Blackstone Legal Fellowship, a leadership training program for law students, the group said in an email to American Banker. Alliance Defending Freedom was designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBTQ hate-group because it has "supported the recriminalization of homosexuality" and "defended state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people,” according to the lawmakers’ letter.

The lawmakers said that when Watkins was hired by the CFPB in 2018, a press release detailed his work experience dating back to 2006, but failed to include his employment at Alliance Defending Freedom. They said they are worried his employment raises questions about the CFPB’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The lawmakers are asking Kraninger whether the CFPB was aware of his prior employment at Alliance Defending Freedom, why he was selected for the role, and what their processes for vetting job candidates are. They also asked whether Watkins has an ethics agreement and if he is recused from any decisions related to CFPB activities regarding LGBTQ discrimination.

At a House hearing on Tuesday, Porter pressed Watkins on whether he has met with any LGBTQ advocacy groups during for his work at the CFPB. She also asked him to detail his work with Alliance Defending Freedom and whether he holds the anti-LGBTQ views that have been ascribed to the organization. Those reports include Alan Sears, the former CEO and co-founder of Alliance Defending Freedom, describing the "homosexual agenda" as "evil," and writing that homosexual behavior and pedophilia "are often intrinsically linked," according to the lawmakers’ letter.

Watkins could not say whether he met with any LGBTQ advocacy groups, but said he did not hold the views the lawmakers outlined in the letter.

“I do not even believe that the organization holds those views … what you have described is clearly unconstitutional,” Watkins said.

Watkins added that he did not engage in any advocacy while working with Alliance Defending Freedom.

“I did not engage in advocacy, I did not engage in litigation,” Watkins said. “I did not advocate for policies in the legislature. … I am committed to upholding the bureau’s policies.”

In an email to American Banker, Alliance Defending Freedom also said Watkins was not involved in its legal advocacy department.

“Paul Watkins worked at ADF on alumni services for the Blackstone Legal Fellowship, a leadership training program for law students,” said Kellie Fiedorek, legal counsel for the group. “Our legal advocacy and litigation arm is a separate department from the Blackstone program. Mr. Watkins did not work in our legal advocacy department.”

The questions about Watkins’ employment come a year after Eric Blankenstein, the CFPB’s former policy director for supervision, enforcement and fair lending, came under fire over previous controversial writings. Blankenstein resigned from his position in May, but was recently hired by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to work at Ginnie Mae. Warren has also protested that hiring, arguing Blankenstein will not be able to serve effectively in that role.

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