Telecom vet answers call to join CFPB

Leonard “Len” Kennedy did not set out to become the chief legal mind for Washington’s brand-new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Having recently retired from a top legal position in the telecommunications industry, Kennedy would seem an odd fit for a bureau that plans to delve deep into the inner workings of the financial system.

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But when word reached him that the agency was on the hunt for a general counsel, and that his name was in the mix, it seemed to make sense. Now, roughly eight months into his tenure, he can’t imagine it any other way.

“My view really was that this whole career I had, in a certain way, was kind of training for doing this job,” he told The Hill in a recent interview at his office.

He quotes a sonnet by Milton when reflecting on his journey to the CFPB.

“ ‘They also serve who only stand and wait,’ ” Kennedy says, reciting Milton. “That’s kind of what I was doing without knowing it. I was waiting for the call to come.”


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Any doubts Kennedy might have had about the job were erased after he had the chance to meet with Elizabeth Warren, the architect of the CFPB, who has since returned to teaching law at Harvard.

“I was just blown away, actually, when I met her,” he said. “She’s an extraordinary person.”

Warren repeatedly cites her down-home Oklahoma roots as her motivation for looking out for average consumers, and Kennedy hits many of the same notes.

“I grew up in a working-class family. I was a lucky kid, I had scholarships to go to school, I had to borrow some money, but nothing like what people have to borrow today,” he said. “I really felt that this was a way to give something back to our country at a time when I could make a contribution, so I was thrilled to be able to have the chance.”

But beyond his formative years, he also hopes that the years he has spent in the private sector will be a major attribute as a public servant. A common critique from CFPB detractors has been that the agency will turn a deaf ear to the complaints of banks and other financial institutions trying to comply with new regulations. But Kennedy hopes the private-sector experience he and other new CFPB hires have will help prevent that scenario.

“It’s possible and not only just possible, but desirable, that we get a good mix of decisionmakers inside the government who’ve been in business, who’ve operated in those circumstances, who’ve had to appear before government agencies and make their case,” he said, adding that private-sector experience is a “really important ingredient” at the CFPB.

“I believe that when citizens come to the government, they’re entitled to and they deserve to get a good hearing and a real consideration of what they’re offering.”

While Kennedy made his name in the telecommunications industry, he is no stranger to the type of economic crisis the financial sector is trying to recover from. 

He first joined Nextel as general counsel in the beginning of 2001 — just before the dot-com bubble burst and the company’s shares tumbled to a fraction of their price. 

But he and Nextel persevered, and he helped navigate a massive merger with Sprint in 2005 before heading up the combined company’s legal operations.

Kennedy anticipates that he and his staff will have their fingers in a lot of pies at the CFPB, as their legal expertise will play a role in just about everything the bureau does.

“Other parts of the bureau … they’ll start to do their work, and that’s their principal responsibility, but the general counsel’s office partners with them. We provide legal advice, we give our view,” he said. “My No. 1 goal as general counsel is to make sure that everything we do really does line up with both the requirements … of the Dodd-Frank act and … basic fairness to the parties who have to appear before us, so they’ll be able to understand our decisions and how we got there.”

And one need look no further than the shelf behind his desk to get a sense of Kennedy’s new responsibilities. There sits an imposing blue binder, less than a foot in width, but not by much, with the simple title The Len Kennedy Briefing Book.

“This is what they send me home with at night,” he joked.

How Kennedy’s new responsibilities will play out remains to be seen. The CFPB is all of two weeks old and still lacks a full-time director, although President Obama has nominated former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray for the position. 

But he is confident that the pieces are in place at the bureau.

“We have a core team in place now,” he said. “You build the plane. Now let’s see how it flies.”

And a crash landing is not an option.

“We must build a better system,” he said. “It’s complex. It’s involved. I think we can do it.”