A recent internal investigation cleared Justice Department attorneys of professional misconduct related to the controversial government program known as Operation Choke Point. But while the report essentially rubber-stamps the DOJ's billing of the program as an effort to crack down on illegal businesses and weed out fraudulent activity, the number of legal and licensed businesses that have been stripped of access to bank accounts since the beginning of Operation Choke Point suggests otherwise.
While the DOJ report exonerated attorneys of intentional wrongdoing, it also provided a glimpse into the overreaching mindset of federal officials. When Choke Point prompted banks to shut down the accounts of law-abiding businesses such as ammunitions dealers, firearms vendors, and home-based charities, officials described the development as a "collateral benefit" and "significant accomplishment." It's patently inappropriate for professionals to inject this type of subjectivity into their official duties.
The fallout from Operation Choke Point has harmed legal businesses and limited the options of the consumers who patronize them. This is especially evident in the short-term lending industry, where millions of Americans seek access to credit in order to make ends meet. When short-term loan providers are cut off from banking services, they cannot operate their business, which in turn hurts those who are underserved by the traditional banking system and need credit most.
Since the beginning of Operation Choke Point, more than 80 banks have terminated relationships with payday lenders, from large national banks to small local branches. These closures are presumably the result of the DOJ program, and it appears likely that more law-abiding businesses will continue to lose banking access as long as Choke Point is in effect.
This is why the Community Financial Services Association of America has filed a lawsuit against the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Reserve. The lawsuit challenges the legality of Operation Choke Point, arguing that ongoing abuses have continued to threaten the basic banking services of our lawful, responsible member companies. Banks are discontinuing relationships with legal businesses even today. One CFSA member company has lost more than a dozen different banking relationships since the beginning of 2013, most of which had existed for more than a decade.
In fact, around the same time that the DOJ report was released, a family-owned and operated business in California called Westshore Cash and Loan was forced to close its doors after being cut off from its bank. According to its owner Allison Deguisne, Westshore Cash and Loan was told by banks on more than one occasion that they would not accept her business as a customer. She spent months trying to find a replacement bank in order to stay in business, but to no avail. Despite the fact that Westshore was a legal, fully licensed and regulated business that had done nothing wrong, it could not find a bank willing to accept its businesses. Businesses across the country in various industries have similar stories.
The fact of the matter is that Operation Choke Point continues to cause harm to both businesses and consumers and even a misleading federal report cannot hide it.
Dennis Shaul is the chief executive of the Community Financial Services Association of America, which represents nonbank lenders. He previously served as a senior advisor to former Representative Barney Frank and as a professional staff member of the House Financial Services Committee.