Friday, July 18, 2014

Republicans to Justice Dept.: Stop targeting legal businesses in ‘Operation Choke Point’

House Republicans are ratcheting up pressure on the Justice Department to end a federal investigation into consumer fraud that they claim is forcing banks to close the accounts of gun dealers, payday lenders and other legal businesses.

Republicans held two hearings this week on the legality of “Operation Choke Point,” a probe into whether banks and payment firms are enabling merchants to illegally withdraw money from consumer accounts to boost their own take from processing fees.

Prosecutors are focusing on activities, such as Internet gambling and small-dollar lending, that regulators say have high rates of complaints from customers about money being taken out of their accounts without their permission, an indication of fraud. Since 2012, the Justice Department has launched at least 15 criminal and civil investigations and has issued 50 subpoenas to banks and payment firms.

Critics of the operation have painted it as an attempt by the Obama administration to shut down legitimate businesses that it deems undesirable.

“There is an unacceptable level of collateral damage,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said at a House Judiciary hearing on Thursday. “There appears to be a disconnect between statements from top officials and what is happening in practice.”

He said the committee has received reports of banks severing relationships with law-abiding customers whose business activities are considered high risk by regulators. Goodlatte said he suspects that banks are responding to pressure from regulators who are acting in concert with the Justice Department.