In a free-market capitalistic system, the economy grows as companies compete freely for consumer dollars by producing superior products and services, adding jobs while their bottom-line grows. In such a system the government plays a role as referee by protecting consumers and ensuring all corporate players compete legally, and fairly. But in a crony-capitalistic system, the government does more than referee — it intervenes, attempting to assure success of some sectors and companies, while thwarting and even penalizing those that are out of favor with the prevailing ideology. Over the past six years our economic system has become increasingly controlled through governmental cronyism, and it just got much worse, and it’s based purely on ideology.
Early last year the Department of Justice (DOJ) initiated a new probe into questionable mercantile ventures facilitated by commercial banks. Initially, “Operation Choke Point” targeted banks that service payday lenders, especially online, and other services that they thought to be dubious. DOJ pressured banks doing business with such firms to “choke” or restrict access of such firms to banking services, even to the point of closing the accounts of such firms.
This policy is not traceable to the passage of Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, commonly referred to as FinReg. That Act created consumer protection regulations, as well as other measures such as “too big to fail,” which were designed to prevent a collapse of the financial services industry as we saw in 2008. Those regulations are enforced through the Department of the Treasury.
Operation Choke Point, however, is being run through the DOJ as an extension of the president’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force (FFETF). The Task Force was created in November 2009 for the express purpose of holding accountable the individuals and institutions that created the last financial crisis. This task force, headed by the DOJ, includes the FBI, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Secret Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The evidence for potential abuses is generated by banks through their reporting of Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), making banking institutions partners with law enforcement agencies in identifying and flagging questionable financial activity.
This puts banks in a tenuous position with law-enforcement and government agencies. As the Wall Street Journal reported last month, “Banks, which need a reliable and safe payments network to survive, have always worked with law enforcement to fight fraud and even terrorism in the financial system. Banks provide tips to law enforcement when a customer’s behavior seems fishy, and they assist in investigations when asked. In the past year alone, banks have filed nearly a million suspicious activity reports with regulators, including suspicions of mortgage fraud, identity theft, counterfeit debit and credit cards, tax evasion and wire-transfer fraud.”
Clearly the intent of the FFETF is appropriate, as it relates to curtailing illegal or dubious financial ventures and transactions, and restricting money-laundering schemes. The problem is, it’s now gone much further than the original intent.
Two weeks ago, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee reported that, based on internal DOJ documents, the administration is now using Operation Choke Point to target companies and sectors that are completely legal, yet not viewed favorably by the administration. The report stated that the DOJ is using pressure on banks to “shut down” companies that they find “objectionable.” “We have documented that they are going after gun and ammunitions manufacturers, gun sellers and non-deposit lenders. Their own memos show they are well beyond enforcing the law,” said Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) after the report was made public.
And it doesn’t end there. The documents released by the House Oversight Committee show that the DOJ has included the entire firearms industry and classified them with other “high risk” targeted businesses. The trade association for firearms and ammunition manufacturers, The National Shooting Sports Foundation, has reported that, “several of its members have had banking relationships wrongfully terminated as a result Operation Choke Point.”
We have yet again an example of the administration utilizing the tools of governance to discriminate against activities and companies that are legal, that they don’t approve of. As previously documented, the administration has abused their power with the IRS, DOJ, Environmental Protection Agency, the Labor Department, FBI, ATF, and OSHA. The administration has abused the power of government, based on ideology, to harass, intimidate, and put out of business, companies led by conservative contributors, and conservative non-profit organizations.
This is the type of political corruption we would expect from a banana republic, or a despotic Middle-Eastern regime, certainly not the United States of America. Columnist Charles Krauthammer believes we’ll be dealing for years with the “toxic residue of this outbreak of authoritative lawlessness.” This is no longer simply a partisan issue of concern. This goes right to the heart of what defines our constitutional system of government, for we have, until now, been a country governed by law, not presidential whims based on ideology.
Associated Press award winning columnist Richard Larsen is President of Larsen Financial, a brokerage and financial planning firm in Pocatello, Idaho and is a graduate of Idaho State University with degrees in Political Science and History and coursework completed toward a Master’s in Public Administration. He can be reached at [email protected].