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Controversy builds at U.S. consumer protection bureau

By   /   January 14, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

AP file photo

BULLY PULPIT: Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, listens to President Obama at a news conference.

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Costly building renovations at the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are raising more congressional concerns that the agency is out of control.

A government report pegs the price of the work at $210 million — $120 million more than initial estimates, with off-site leasing costs included.

“That’s more per square foot than the Bellagio hotel-casino in Las Vegas,” said John Berlau, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

And, critics add, CFPB doesn’t even own the building.

The Office of Inspector General for the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Board found that “approval of funding for the renovation was not in accordance with the CFPB’s current policies for major investment.”

“A sound business case is not available to support the funding of the renovation,” the OIG concluded.

Lawmakers have mocked the project, which includes a glass staircase, concession kiosk and a ‘water wall’ ending in a splash pool.

CFPB Director Richard Cordray countered: “We don’t own the building, but the notion we are building some kind of palace is ridiculous.”

Cordray acknowledged, however, that he did not know the square footage of the office located near the White House. Still, the project lives.

The building battle is an ironic twist for the 4-year-old CFPB, whose website declares, “We want to help consumers make smarter decisions.”

The agency is funded largely by fees banks pay to the Federal Reserve. Cordray said the bureau has levied more than $141 million in fines, which have gone into CFPB education programs or reparation to consumers.

AP file photo

BACK OFF: Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, says the CFPB has an expensive edifice complex.

Unimpressed, Republicans in Congress have raised repeated questions about CFPB’s sweeping collection of citizens’ private financial data and allegations of workplace discrimination within the bureau.

“They say they need sensitive mortgage and credit card data to do their job,” said Berlau. “No other agency has this power — they’re rivaling the National Security Agency.”

The Competitive Enterprise Institute is suing the bureau on the grounds that CFPB is unconstitutional.

In another case, where the CFPB is suing the bankruptcy services firm Morgan Drexen, the bureau has claimed unsuccessfully that it is exempt from depositions.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling said the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, which created the CFPB, made the agency “unaccountable to taxpayers and to Congress.”

“We’re seeing the results of this dangerous unaccountability today in a Washington bureaucracy that is running amok, spending as much as it wants on whatever it wants,” the Texas Republican said.

Hensarling estimated that halting the renovation plans and finding a cheaper office would save the bureau about $100 million. He recommends that the government sell the building to the highest bidder.

This article was updated at 10:55 a.m. Jan. 15.

Kenric Ward is a national correspondent for Watchdog.org and chief of its Virginia Bureau. Contact him at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward

 

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Kenric Ward is a veteran journalist who has worked on three Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers. A California native, he received a BA from UCLA (Political Science/Phi Beta Kappa) and holds an MBA. He reported and edited at the San Jose Mercury News and the Las Vegas Sun before joining Watchdog.org in 2012 as Virginia Bureau Chief.