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UPDATED: CFPB exec sought ways to shield bank documents from public

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Mark Tapscott,Watchdog,CFPB,Waste and Fraud,Whistleblowers,Follow the Money,Jeb Hensarling,FOIA,Workplace Safety

A top Consumer Financial Protection Bureau executive tried to prevent public release of bank responses to consumer complaints, according to newly released documents.

The documents include emails obtained by Cause of Action, a nonprofit government watchdog, that show CFPB's Scott Pluta:

• Asked CFPB colleagues to find a way to shield communications with banks from requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act;

• Asked CFPB employees if they “can craft a letter or bury something in the manual” to keep communications with the banks “private”;

• Told CFPB's legal counsel and FOIA experts that “you're absolutely killing me ... I would really appreciate if in the back of your heads you could think about how to creatively solve this puzzle.”

Pluta is assistant director of CFPB's Office of Consumer Response. One of the main reasons Congress created CFPB in 2010 was to provide consumers with more transparency about how banks and other financial institutions conduct business.

FOIA permits federal officials to withhold official documents only in consideration of factors such as national security, law enforcement, privacy and protection of commercial secrets.

Pluta appeared to be responding to fears expressed by bankers that their discussions with CFPB about consumer complaints would be releasable under FOIA.

In a Dec. 7, 2011, email, for example, Pluta sought assistance in "crafting some kinda policy that will give banks at least some comfort" about how CFPB would respond to FOIA requests.

The name of the recipient of Pluta's email was redacted from the copy of the email that was obtained by Cause of Action. None of the responses Pluta may have received to the email was made available.

Pluta wrote in a Dec. 6 email whose recipient was also redacted that "we created the ability, for the banks, to communicate with CFPB through the bank portal without that communication being available to the consumer through the consumer panel."

In the same email, Pluta explained that the bank portal would assure assure bankers that "they can communicate with us and have some expectation of privacy, [and that] they can do so with confidence.

"I understand that we cannot say that these communications are per se protected from production, however, I think that we can say that communications that do pass though this channel are either presumed to fall within one of the [FOIA] exceptions or at least that they will receive some additional level of review, etc."

Pluta did not respond to a Washington Examiner request for comment.

Cause of Action Executive Director Daniel Epstein said the Pluta emails appear to be an effort to improperly withhold official documents.

“Federal agencies cannot avoid their transparency obligations simply because they want to. Cause of Action has previously exposed how CFPB advises its employees to FOIA-proof their work calendars, but these new documents evidence an overt attempt by a senior CFPB employee to change standard protocol in order to improperly shield records from the public,” Epstein said.

Pluta is at the center of a controversy that has rocked CFPB for more than a year. As the Examiner reported Aug. 1, at least 32 bureau workers have registered complaints with the House Financial Services Committee.

Their complaints detail allegations of racial and gender discrimination. The Government Accountability Office and the Federal Reserve's inspector general are investigating.

The GAO investigation was requested by Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and panel members Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

An outside investigator retained last year reviewed the discrimination allegations and reported to senior bureau executives that CFPB's office environment was a "toxic workplace."

More recently, CFPB retained Hollowell, Foster and Herring, an Atlanta law firm with longstanding Democratic ties, as the Examiner reported last month.

The new law firm specializes in defending government agencies faced with whistleblower or employee complaints. Last year it was retained by the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs.

In June, CFPB settled litigation filed by whistleblower Angela Martin, a bureau attorney who claimed Pluta demoted her and gave her a critical performance rating after she complained about discrimination.

As part of the settlement, CFPB agreed to rescind an August 2013 email from Pluta to Martin ordering her to stop communicating with her CFPB colleagues.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CFPB workers, filed a grievance against Pluta as a result of that email.

UPDATE: No access to Pluta

Jen Howard, a CFPB spokesman, declined to make Pluta available to the Examiner for an on-the-record interview. Instead, she provided the following statement:

"This was a pre-decisional, internal discussion among CFPB employees regarding disclosure of confidential materials collected as part of our consumer complaint and investigation process. The CFPB determined that these materials are exempted from disclosure as law enforcement information and confidential commercial information. The CFPB publicly disclosed that it had it had made this determination."

The disclosures referenced in the CFPB statement can be viewed here and here.

 

 

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Mark Tapscott

Executive Editor
The Washington Examiner

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