TOPEKA, Kan. — President Donald Trump's budget director and acting director of the federal government's consumer watchdog agency questioned Friday whether it's still useful to keep an online database of complaints against lenders and other financial companies.
Mick Mulvaney, acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said he has not made a decision about how publicly accessible the database will remain. The bureau formally published a notice in April seeking public comments on its complaint process and the public database.
"The real question is: How does it help consumers to make it public?" he said during a news conference after an event in Topeka. "Again, what we're talking about is something where you have a difficult time. Are we helping you fix your problem? Do we have to make it public to do that?"
Mulvaney came to Kansas for a two-hour forum with state Attorney General Derek Schmidt about elder abuse, two days after disbanding a 25-member advisory board of outside experts. While he said the board will be reformed, Mulvaney said plans to use forums around the nation to gather feedback and solicit ideas. The Topeka event was the first one.
Before and during the event, a truck with mobile billboards on its sides criticizing Mulvaney and Schmidt circled the building, sponsored by Allied Progress, a left-leaning, anti-Mulvaney consumer group. Mulvaney addressed public access to the complaints database because an audience member raised it.
"It's essentially a taxpayer-funded Yelp for financial institutions," Mulvaney said during a news conference after the forum, echoing a comment he made during a banking conference in April. "And you ask yourself if that's a good use of our time and our money. We're in the middle of that analysis."
Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman, faced criticism for making the bureau more industry friendly since taking over in late November by proposing rollbacks of regulations, dropping lawsuits of banks and payday lenders and asking Congress to substantially shrink the bureau's legal mandate.
He announced during Friday's forum that the bureau is launching a new initiative to help build local networks of groups and officials to combat the financial abuse of the elderly. The bureau reported that only 25 percent of the nation's counties have such networks.
But Bryce Bell, a Kansas City, Missouri, attorney who represents consumers, asked about the complaints database and argued that public access prevents elder abuse by allowing seniors, their families and caregivers to research the companies with which they might do business.
After the forum, he said a public database makes companies more receptive to settling complaints, adding, "It's a method of trying to stop a lawsuit before it happens."
The online database now provides access to more than 1 million complaints filed since the public portal was created in the summer of 2012 during former President Barack Obama's administration. Federal law requires the bureau to keep a database tracking complaints but is vague on whether the complaints must be public. Mulvaney told reporters Friday that public access is not required.
The database has become a valuable tip sheet for reporters and consumer advocates and state lawmakers used the data to justify changes in their laws, such as caps in Maryland on payday loans. But the banking industry opposed the public database from the beginning, seeing its unverified complaints as no different from anonymous Internet complaints.
Mulvaney said the database lacks information on exactly how complaints were resolved and doesn't account for how some companies draw a higher number of complaints simply because they're larger than others.
"We've perceived various weaknesses of the stuff that we make public," Mulvaney said during the forum.