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Tampa Bay businesses have questions about Operation Choke Point

TAMPA, FL (WFLA) - Local businessessuddenly cut off from their bank accounts think they were targeted by thefederal government.

They point tosomething called Operation Choke Point, a Department of Justice initiativedesigned to cut off access to financial services. It's supposed to target theworst of the worst, terrorists and crooks. But the hit list of industries toscrutinize 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 targetbut he wonders about a check he wrote to the National Rifle Association. It wasprocessed on March 20, the same day SunTrust Bank wrote him a cancellationletter.

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

Kiefer Tuckerof Ruskin Pawn also lost his account at SunTrust.

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

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

"It'sabsolutely discouraging to me that we're allowing this to happen at thisparticular time in our country, when free enterprise has always been our savinggrace," he said.

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

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

One of thecompanies 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 collectinginformation on businesses across the country that feel targeted by thisoperation. 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 totalk about doing more business with him.

"it didn'tmake any sense," Appel said.

Then he startedresearching online and found other stories about businesses with the sameproblem. He learned about Operation Choke Point.

"Ithought, "that sounds like what happened to me."

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

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

"They'regoing after clinics, collection agencies, gun dealers, ammunition dealers, paymentprocessors," said Alex Bacon of EFT.

Here's howBacon describes the pressure from regulators:

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

Appel wasstunned, but he decided to make the recordings public. Speaking out is the onlyway he knows to fight back.

"I've doneabsolutely nothing wrong, operating a legal business," Appel said. "Ijust don't understand this country, how you can be penalized when you'refollowing the law."

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

"In nocase has the department targeted any lawful enterprise, such as gun orammunition sellers," Rodenbush wrote.

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