Humphrey defends seniors in new D.C. role

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 7, 2012 - 6:02 AM

His task builds on a career in Minnesota of championing the rights of older Americans.

WASHINGTON - A true Minnesotan at heart, Hubert Humphrey III is more apt to make suggestions than demands.

But on his first day as the nation's chief consumer advocate for senior citizens, that changed: The tiny, eight-point type left him squinting at the computer screen and laughing about the irony.

"Hey, this is the Office of Older Americans. We use 12 font or 14," Humphrey recalled playfully telling his staff, referring to the larger type kinder to older eyes.

Since he was chosen to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's new Office of Older Americans, Humphrey has traveled from California to Maine looking for ways to protect the interests of senior citizens. That has taken in everything from lobbying for large-print pamphlets to urging law enforcement to crack down harder on criminals who prey on seniors.

Older Americans lost nearly $3 billion to financial exploitation in 2010 alone, according to a study by insurance company MetLife Inc. With the nation's senior population at 50 million and growing, the problem will only get worse, Humphrey said.

"You need to be able to send a sign ... to these rascals committing the crimes," Humphrey said. "When we catch you, there are going to be severe consequences."

Created by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Humphrey's office is charged with safeguarding the rights of Americans 62 and older and educating them about their financial options -- issues he's championed throughout a long career as a legislator, state attorney general and leader within the Minnesota and national AARP organizations.

Several years after Humphrey lost his bid for governor in 1998, Michele Kimball, the director of AARP Minnesota, recruited him as the state organization's volunteer leader.

Now he's back in government in a national role, advocating for people without the constraints of elections and fundraisers.

"I've never seen him so energized," said Kimball, who's known Humphrey for close to a decade. "He's like this little kid in a candy shop."

A senior citizen himself, Humphrey, 69, is acutely aware of what's staring down many of the nation's elders: depleted retirement savings, rising health care costs and the complexities of an increasingly digital world.

"We're living a lot of what we're dealing with," Humphrey said.

With his long experience and storied family name, Humphrey, the son of former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, is the ideal candidate to connect with seniors, said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

Double-teamed problems

It was as a college intern in Humphrey's attorney general office that Klobuchar went undercover to conduct consumer protection investigations. Years later, when Humphrey served on AARP's national board of directors, the two teamed up to tackle long-term senior care issues on Capitol Hill.

Soon after he began his new job in D.C., Humphrey and Klobuchar met up in Minnesota, co-hosting an event in December in Crystal, the town he represented as a legislator.

"He's so trusted by seniors ... when he's out front, they listen," Klobuchar said.

With five employees, Humphrey oversees just a sliver of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but the challenge he faces is daunting.

As recently as 2007, three of five families headed by a senior citizen had no retirement savings. For those who do have money tucked away, sophisticated scam artists are developing new swindles to siphon the trillions of dollars in assets they've accrued.

"The con artists know that you're isolated, you're alone and you're older," Humphrey said.

Increasingly, those con artists have familiar faces. More than 5 percent of Americans 60 and older are financially abused by a family member, a 2009 by the federal Justice Department's National Institute of Justice found.

When it comes to family, "some are more trustworthy than others," an elderly woman told Humphrey during a meeting in Memphis, Tenn., this week.

Spawn spending sprees

In many cases, Humphrey said, the raid on retirement savings may begin with a caregiver who rationalizes that since they transport mom or dad to all their appointments in a beat-up jalopy, it wouldn't hurt to dip into an account to buy a new car.

Unchecked, the one-time purchases can spawn spending sprees and "the next thing you know, money starts flowing in the wrong direction," Humphrey said.

The Office of Older Americans teams with other federal agencies for national projects, but it also will address consumer complaints, giving seniors tools to stay informed and fight back, even against thieving relatives.

"I intend to make it the Office of Older, Smarter Americans," Humphrey said.

On his desk, next to a framed staff photo with President Obama, Humphrey keeps a bright red button with large white letters that reads, "Older is Bolder." The swag he picked up during a visit to New York may be an omen of what's to come.

"He's the right man, at the right job and the right time," Kimball said.

Humphrey says his goals are modest.

"I just hope that experience and my commitment to this ... will help us all live a better life," he said. "That's the bottom line."

Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @StribMitchell

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