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Tampa Bay businesses have questions about Operation Choke Point

 

TAMPA, FL (WFLA) -  Local businesses suddenly cut off from their bank accounts think they were targeted by the federal government.

They point to something called Operation Choke Point, a Department of Justice initiative designed to cut off access to financial services. It's supposed to target the worst of the worst, terrorists and crooks. But the hit list of industries to scrutinize include gun dealers, pawn shops, tobacco companies and many others. Many of them are small businesses with clean records.

Steve Champion, of American Gun & Pawn in Brooksville has no idea why he would be a target but he wonders about a check he wrote to the National Rifle Association. It was processed on March 20, the same day SunTrust Bank wrote him a cancellation letter.

"I'm not saying that's the reason why, but it's pretty suspicious," Champion said.

Kiefer Tucker of Ruskin Pawn also lost his account at SunTrust.

"I felt more betrayed than anything else," said Kiefer Tucker, of Ruskin Pawn. He was cut off by SunTrust Bank, after 20 years of banking there. "I love my country. I've never had an issue with my government but this has been a real eye-opening experience for me, though."

U.S. Congressman Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, says he and colleagues are investigating Operation Choke Point and are "deeply concerned" by what they see.

"It's absolutely discouraging to me that we're allowing this to happen at this particular time in our country, when free enterprise has always been our saving grace," he said.

Ross has sent letters to the Justice Department, Federal Reserve and FDIC, demanding answers. There have been formal hearings, but few answers.

Operation Choke Point may have started with good intentions, Ross said, but it has become a back door for the government to use banks to target industries it doesn't like.

One of the companies cut off by Bank of America, Global Hookah Distributors Co. in N.C., turned to the U.S. Consumer Coalition for help. The coalition is collecting information on businesses across the country that feel targeted by this operation. There is information on many of them on the coalition's website.

Brennan Appel, owner of Global Hookah, says he was first cut off by Bank of America last May. He had no idea why, he says, because the month before that the bank wanted to talk about doing more business with him.

"it didn't make any sense," Appel said.

Then he started researching online and found other stories about businesses with the same problem. He learned about Operation Choke Point.

"I thought, "that sounds like what happened to me."

Then in February, his payment processor, EFT, called to say they are cutting him off, too. And then the president of EFT confirmed Appel's suspicions that Operation Choke Point was to blame. And Appel has the whole conversation of tape. Global Hookah records all incoming phone calls.

Appel has since decided to make parts of those calls public. Here are two of the excerpts:

"They're going after clinics, collection agencies, gun dealers, ammunition dealers, payment processors," said Alex Bacon of EFT.

Here's how Bacon describes the pressure from regulators:

"We're going to make your life miserable," Bacon said. "Instead of auditing you once a year we're going to audit you four times a year. If we find anything negative we're going to write it up and then you're going to incur increased cost increased focus from banking regulators."

Appel was stunned, but he decided to make the recordings public. Speaking out is the only way he knows to fight back.

"I've done absolutely nothing wrong, operating a legal business," Appel said. "I just don't understand this country, how you can be penalized when you're following the law."

No one from the Justice Department would answer questions on the phone, but Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman, sent 8 On Your Side an email, highlighting some of the successes of the operation. He said it has helped shut down criminal activity.

"In no case has the department targeted any lawful enterprise, such as gun or ammunition sellers," Rodenbush wrote.

The Justice Department blog highlights criminal takedowns brought about by the operation, but it glosses right over small business casualties.The U.S. Consumer Coalition is keeping track, though. It lists business after business, all cut off from their bank accounts - and none of them were charged with a crime.