Lawmakers Urge FTC to Investigate 'Dark Money' Group Attacking Consumer Watchdog Group

One group has spent $58,000 attacking the government agency.

May 4, 2016, 2:59 PM
PHOTO: Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Richard Cordray testifies during a hearing before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, April 7, 2016, in Washington.
Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Richard Cordray testifies during a hearing before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, April 7, 2016, in Washington.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

— -- Some lawmakers are trying to find out who's paying so-called "dark money" for ads attacking the watchdog group Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Protect America's Consumers, a political lobbying group, has spent nearly $58,000 on cable TV and online ads disparaging the nearly 5-year-old government agency, according to a report by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that advocates for open government. One of the ads includes quotes from Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, and Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, who say they were taken out of context to try to undermine the consumer agency they actually support.

The three Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, urging an investigation of the ads.

In a statement provided to ABC News, Rep. Waters said, "The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been so successful protecting consumers and providing relief to millions of Americans that its opponents have had to resort to secretive and dishonest tactics to try and undermine its critical work. I am deeply concerned with the way Protect America’s Consumers is taking our words out of context in TV ads and online in an effort to attack the Bureau. We are working with the FTC to identify those who are responsible and to take whatever steps necessary.”

The representatives complained that their quotes appear like endorsements for the political group's attempts "to ultimately dismantle the bureau." For example, one ad quotes Rep. Ellison with the words, "The CFPB does need to clean up its act." Ellison's full quote from a House financial services committee hearing in 2014 is, “It so happens that the CFPB does need to clean up its act as every other federal agency does, proving that even a stopped clock can be right twice a day.”

The ads argue that the bureau's rule-making over the financial services industry isn't "accountable" to Congress or President Obama. Protect America's Consumers states on its website that it has tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status, which means it must spend less than half of its money on politics, such as political advertising, and it doesn't have to reveal its donors. Donations to 501(c)(4) groups are unlimited, but the use of those donations is limited when it comes to politics. Records show it was incorporated in Warrenton, Virginia, in November 2015 with the same address as that of law firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky. The law firm did not respond to a request for comment. In 2012, the firm was tied to groups that spent millions on that year's election, including Karl Rove's American Crossroads, Bloomberg reported. Attempts to obtain a record of Protect America's Consumers' tax-exempt status and to reach a spokesman of Protect America's Consumers were not successful.

One of the ads accuses the agency of being "plagued with scandal and corruption," while pointing to its "luxurious new office," though one report from Bloomberg said the estimated building renovation costs were exaggerated.

The CFPB was created in 2010 to "protect consumers from unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices and take action against companies that break the law," according to its website. The bureau's authority to supervise non-bank financial services, which includes auto lending and leasing, has been the target of some Republican lawmakers and the financial services industry who argue the agency may be too aggressive with its enforcement actions against banks. Ohio's former attorney general Richard Cordray became the agency's first director over the objections of a number of Republicans who hoped instead to place a five-member commission over the bureau.

Libby Watson, staff writer with the Sunlight Foundation, underscored the difficulty in determining who is behind the ads.

"I do this full time and I found it really hard to find out who these people are," Watson said. "The public –- people with actual jobs -- would have no hope finding out who these people are. They’re attacking the CFPB for not being accountable. The problem is these people aren’t accountable to anybody, because we don’t even know who they are."

A spokeswoman for the CFPB declined to comment about the ads.

A spokesman for the FTC declined to comment.