James Madison once wrote that “the rights of persons, and the rights of property, are the objects, for the protection of which government was instituted.” While in recent years our political leaders have not always lived up to Madison’s vision of government, rarely have they engaged in such blatant disregard for our constitutional rights as they did during Operation Choke Point — a secret program launched under the Obama administration to punish political adversaries.
Operation Choke Point was a plot by President Obama’s Department of Justice, the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and other government agencies to cut off banking and financial services for small businesses and industries that they deemed to be political enemies or otherwise undesirable.
Some of these businesses included gun stores, ammunition shops, fireworks stores, small dollar lenders, and home-based charities.
Some government officials tried to deny the existence of the program. That includes former CFPB director, Richard Cordray, who dodged questions from Sen. Mike Crapo in 2014 as to the CFPB’s participation in Operation Choke Point. Yet in that same year, Cordray warned banks against doing business with “… unscrupulous lenders and their payment processors.”
Cordray was not alone in trying to hide the truth about this operation. Officials from the DOJ and FDIC all worked to keep the program’s existence from the public and to bury the truth. Finally, however, the truth is now being unmasked.
Government documents were just unsealed providing evidence of just how far reaching and destructive Operation Choke Point really was to small businesses.
In this specific case, the documents show how the FDIC engaged in a targeted campaign against lawful and legally operating businesses, cutting them off from banking services without due process or other legal recourse. While most thought the program began around 2013 — at least that was when evidence of the program first began to surface — a senior official with the FDIC was pushing regulators to cut off banking for lawful small dollar lenders at least three years before that. The official told regulators: “… if a bank was found to be involved in payday lending, someone was going to be fired.” Brought to light by the unsealed documents, additional instruction was given to regulators that “if an institution in their region was facilitating payday lending, the regional director should require the institution to submit a plan for exiting the business.”
Any business deemed to be a political enemy would be considered “high-risk,” and as the legal filing that unsealed these new incriminating documents notes, it was made clear “that banks servicing high risk customers through payment processors would incur additional regulatory compliance burdens.” In another incident, available now through the deposition of a bank chairman, said the chairman was threatened with criminal referral to the Department of Justice if a business relationship with a small dollar lender was not ended.
Equally disturbing is that once a bank cut off services to a business, regulators pressured the bank to claim the action as their own, effectively covering up the government’s involvement.
With this new evidence, it has become even more clear how invested the Obama administration was in Operation Choke Point. If an industry stood against their political agenda, it was only a matter of bringing the full force of the administrative and regulatory state against that industry as a means of coercion and punishment. Operation Choke Point was “Chicago-style politics” brought to Washington, D.C.
Reps. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., and Sean Duffy, R-Wis., have been leaders in exposing Operation Choke Point. And I cannot agree more Luetkemeyer’s reaction to the latest revelations when he said, “I am appalled by the blatant intimidation and bias employed by unelected bureaucrats to play partisan politics with the livelihood of our citizens. No matter your ideological leanings, the American government should not be able to destroy all that you have worked for.”
Our political leaders and government officials have a duty to respect our rights to commerce, and we as citizens should not have to fear our businesses and livelihoods will be threatened merely because we fall on the opposite side of the partisan divide. My hope is that with these incriminating documents coming to light, our government will never try to wage war on America’s citizens and small businesses again.
Ken Blackwell was a Domestic Policy Advisor to the Trump Presidential Transition Operations. He also served as Ohio Treasurer and Mayor of Cincinnati.