House panel subpoenas CFPB officials on discrimination claims

A congressional panel overwhelmingly voted Tuesday to force top officials at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to answer questions about discrimination claims at the agency.

Subpoenas to compel testimony from two CFPB managers, as well as a representative of the National Treasury Employees Union, received unanimous backing by a House Financial Services subcommittee.

The panel sought to force those witnesses to appear after it heard claims from a CFPB employee who charged there was widespread vindictive and discriminatory behavior at the consumer watchdog.

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Angela Martin, an enforcement attorney at the bureau, said she was isolated from the workforce after she complained about managerial treatment, and that “dozens” of other bureau employees also had complaints.

The CFPB, as well as the NTEU, declined to send requested officials to testify at that hearing held earlier this month, citing their own investigation into the issue. But lawmakers from both parties said Tuesday it was critical for the bureau to address such serious charges.

CFPB Director Richard Cordray has said he is willing to answer questions on the matter, but the subpoena is aimed at two CFPB officials more directly involved in the matter: M. Stacey Bach, the assistant director of the office of equal opportunity employment, and Liza Strong, director of employee relations. The subcommittee also agreed to subpoena Benjamin Konop, the executive vice president of the federal employee union.

While there was bipartisan support for the subpoenas, there were clear fault lines between the two parties on how to further continue the matter. Democrats were eager to expand a probe into discriminatory practices to all agencies under the committee’s jurisdiction, and were able to include an amendment to do just that.

“If this committee is going to be involved in rooting out discrimination, then I’m all for that,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). “I hope that this hearing inquiry goes beyond just trying to cast the CFPB in a negative light.”

But Republicans wanted to take a more deliberate and targeted approach, leaving the door open for a broader inquiry down the way. While they have long been critical of the bureau, they contended that their desire to dig into the claims was not politically motivated.

“What we saw was a brand new agency establishing a very bad culture,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who heads the subcommittee. “We’ve tried to limit this in scope and try to understand this, and see where we need to take it.”

Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) sought to tie the issues at the CFPB to the major story of the day. Hours after the NBA announced it had banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life after the revelation of his racist comments, Duffy said the government should be as proactive in addressing discrimination in its ranks. He also noted that President Obama condemned Sterling’s comments earlier this week.

“We should be able to move quickly in condemning what has taken place,” he said. “That same kind of immediacy, that same kind of passion…I would hope they would come forward and help us in this effort.”