Visitors this weekend to Townhall.com were welcomed with a pop-up advertisement soliciting a petition against the Obama administration. “Help us send 1 million letters to stop reckless regulators,” the ad beckons, atop images of President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.
The advertisement is sponsored by Consumers for Choices, a new group whipping up right-wing anger at the Obama administration for supposedly using his “Reckless, Elitist, Overzealous Regulators” to destroy “small-dollar” and tribal lenders. Visitors to the Consumers for Choices website, which is being advertised on conservative news portals like Townhall, are encouraged to contact their local representatives to send an angry pre-written letter. Consumers for Choices says their supporters will be automatically entered into a weekly raffle, with a grand prize $500 Visa gift card.
The advocacy website repeatedly references Western Sky Financial, an online installment loan company that recently suspended lending after being sent cease-and-desist letters from government agencies. Left unsaid on the Consumers for Choices site are the types of loans offered by the company, which feature interest rates of 355 percent.
A single $5,075 loan from Western Sky cost $40,872.72 to pay back — more than eight times the original amount.
A commercial from the company featured a Native American woman exclaiming, “Making the six monthly payments is good for your credit profile!”
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently sued Western Sky Financial, CashCall Inc. and other online lenders for violating New York state usury laws, which cap interest at 16 percent for such loans. In August, the Department of Justice began investigating a broad range of banks that handle payments for payday and installment lending companies accused of deceiving customers and charging predatory interest rates.
Regulators say predatory lenders are pairing to Native American groups to exploit tribal sovereignty.
Western Sky, which operates on a reservation in South Dakota but markets its loans through national television and Internet advertising, says its location on tribal land prevents authorities from using state law to regulate its business. The Consumers for Choice site takes that argument a step further, declaring, “With your help, we can tell our elected leaders to put a stop to baseless attacks on tribal business and eliminate government fraud!”
Though the website contains no information about the type of loans in jeopardy of being eliminated, there is plenty of incendiary language designed to incite readers into action. Consumers for Choice warns of “elitist Federal regulators” seeking to deny “access to much-needed credit and funding for the average American family.”
The Consumers for Choice site, registered in August shortly after the New York State and Department of Justice probe began, also does not disclose any information about who is behind the effort. The Contact Us page lists an address for Aristotle, a political website company.
The only names listed on the site are Republican members of Congress who have issued supportive blurbs.
“I applaud the efforts of Consumers for Choice to promote free market principals and help make the general public aware of how federal and state regulators are now working to limit consumers and small businesses ability to access consumer credit,” reads one message from Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS). Similar quotes are provided from Representatives Dennis Ross (R-FL), Dave Schweikert (R-AZ) and Tom Graves (R-GA). In August, thirty-one House Republicans signed a letter to the government, accusing the Department of Justice of “intimidating” banks for working with online lenders.
A look into Florida state business records, where Consumers for Choices Inc. is registered, provides more clues.
On August 30, 2013, an attorney named Andrew L. Asher filed documents to change the name of “Floridians for Good Government, Inc.” to “Consumers for Choices, Inc.”
Asher is attorney with Jenkins Hill Consulting, a lobbying firm that represents a trade association for installment lenders called the American Financial Services Association.
The group spends about $6 million a year, with a large portion of its budget devoted to advocacy and government relations. Last week, AFSA held its annual meeting at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, DC, where member companies, along with their lobbyists, met with lawmakers and were treated to a private talk on “inside politics” by Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace.
This post first appeared at The Nation and is reposted here with permission.
Lee Fang is a reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations, now known as Type Investigations.