Depending on whom you ask, Operation Choke Point has a promising future ahead of it – or will soon be history.
The controversial initiative by the Department of Justice (DOJ) is intended to limit certain lenders and merchants from access to consumers by cutting off their relationships with entities like check cashers and nonbank financial service providers.
But the agency’s efforts have faced criticism from both industry and lawmakers, who have expressed concern that the operation may be having a negative impact on lawful companies as well.
In response, Attorney General Eric Holder posted a video address to the agency’s website in which he vowed to continue to investigate financial institutions “that knowingly facilitate consumer scams, or that willfully look the other way in processing fraudulent transactions.”
“While we will not target businesses operating within the bounds of the law, and we have no interest in pursuing or discouraging lawful conduct, our Consumer Protection Branch in the Civil Division is leading a range of investigations into banks that illegally enable businesses to siphon billions of dollars from consumers’ bank accounts in exchange for significant fees,” Holder said.
He also referenced the operation’s successful efforts such as the agency’s action against Four Oaks Bank in North Carolina, where the bank agreed to pay $1.2 million to settle allegations of facilitating fraudulent transactions.
“In the months ahead, we expect to resolve other investigations involving financial institutions that chose to process transactions even though they knew the transactions were fraudulent, or willfully ignored clear evidence of fraud,” Holder added.
Critics reacted to the video with proposed legislation that would effectively halt the DOJ’s operation.
Pursuant to H.R. 4986, the “End Operation Choke Point Act of 2014,” proposed by Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.), banking regulators could not “prohibit or otherwise restrict or discourage” financial institutions from dealing with a licensed merchant, including one registered as a “money transmitting business” or that has a “reasoned legal opinion that demonstrates the legality” of its business dealings. A state-licensed attorney could provide the “reasoned legal opinion.”
“It’s time to stop these backdoor attempts by government bureaucrats to blackmail and threaten businesses simply because they morally object to entire sectors of our economy,” Rep. Luetkemeyer said in a press release about the bill.
Backed by the American Bankers Association (ABA), the law would also place limits on the DOJ’s subpoena power over banks under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act. “This bill goes a long way toward restoring the proper relationship between banks, their customers, regulators and law enforcement,” executive vice president of the ABA James Ballentine said in a press release about the bill.
To view AG Holder’s video address, click here.
To read H.R. 4986, click here.
Why it matters: What does the future hold for Operation Choke Point? Controversy, at the very least, as AG Holder continues to press forward with investigations of financial institutions as lawmakers push back with legislation.