Top FTC consumer protection official has 120 corporate conflicts of interest

The top consumer protection official at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is barred from handling cases involving more than 100 different companies due to conflicts of interest from his prior work as a private sector attorney, according to documents obtained by the consumer group, Public Citizen.

Andrew Smith, who was tapped as the chief of the FTC’s Consumer Protection Bureau in May, listed 120 conflicts on a financial disclosure form that Public Citizen released on Thursday. Among them are Facebook, Equifax and Uber, all of which are either under investigation by the FTC or operating under consent agreements with the agency.

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“Even in an administration full of unprecedented conflicts of interests, Mr. Smith’s conflicts stand out from the pack,” Lisa Gilbert, Public Citizen’s vice president of legislative affairs, said in a statement.

“The Federal Trade Commission should be protecting consumers against predatory payday lenders and corporate bad actors rather than giving the corporate lawyer who has represented these companies a job. This is one more example of the fox guarding the henhouse,” Gilbert added.

Smith’s hiring caused an early rift among the new slate of FTC commissioners confirmed this year, with the two Democrats voting against his appointment in a 3-2 party-line vote. Rohit Chopra, a Democrat on the commission, said his private sector work would hamper his ability to oversee the bureau’s operations.

“The Director should be our quarterback on the agency’s top priorities,” Chopra said in a statement at the time. “But, I fear our quarterback will be spending too much time on the sidelines. Industry lawyers can be a key weapon in an enforcer’s arsenal. But, in this case, it may prove to be a liability, both substantively and in terms of public trust.”

FTC Chairman Joseph Simons has defended Smith’s hiring by arguing that bureau staff is well-equipped to handle matters that Smith has recused himself from.

“I am disappointed that two of my new colleagues have chosen to turn Mr. Smith’s appointment into a source of unnecessary controversy,” Simons said in May. “I am highly confident that Mr. Smith will be an effective leader of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. He is widely respected as one of our country’s best and most experienced consumer protection lawyers.”

A spokesperson for the agency did not immediately respond when asked for comment.

-- Updated 3:38 p.m.