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Small business owners victimized by Operation Choke Point decry government overreach

 

The struggling entrepreneur tried to maintain her flailing company after Wells Fargo choked off her line of credit. She said she approached numerous bankers in search of financial support who told her on more than one occasion: “We don’t do business with people like you.”

Now, she is giving up on her small-business venture.

“My retirement is gone. I have nothing to sell of the business,” she said. “My retirement and my child’s education fund.”

Ms. Deguisne was one of several victims of a government-run program dubbed Operation Choke Point who went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to describe how they have lost their livelihoods because their industry was placed on a high risk-list by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Banks interpreted that listing as a warning not to do business with such enterprises, lest they be charged with racketeering, joint liability and other accessory offenses.

Some of Tuesday’s witnesses were gun shop owners, other payday lenders and one person who sold tobacco. All of them now are struggling to make it to their next paychecks.

Operation Choke Point, a multiagency task force run out of the Department of Justice, initially was designed to combat corruption by investigating the connections that banks maintain with companies considered to be at high risk for money laundering.

Business owners, who say they are victims of government overreach, have dark tales about how they were forced to eat through their savings to salvage their companies or, in worst-case scenarios, sell their shops.

Rep. Sean P. Duffy, Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the Financial Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations, convened the meeting of victims to demonstrate the personal effects of what he calls “the greatest government overreach that no one is talking about” and to question the FDIC chairman about the program.

Mr. Duffy described the program as “clever” but “un-American.”

After Choke Point was exposed last year, the FDIC retracted the high-risk list.

FDIC Chairman Martin Gruenberg said during the Tuesday hearing on Choke Point that some banks appear to have misinterpreted regulatory guidance. That misinterpretation led them to bar entire categories of businesses from using bank services.

In January, the FDIC issued a letter saying all banks should examine their customer relationships on a case-by-case basis and not by industry operational risk.

The government agency followed the action with a memorandum to its supervisory staff requiring that examiners put into writing their recommendation to terminate an account, which the financial institution must review before the account is ended.

Still, that’s not enough to satisfy some lawmakers and business owners who have been affected by the program.

Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, Missouri Republican, is moving forward with a bill he introduced in the last legislative session aimed at cementing the FDIC’s rule into law and to ensure that other financial institutions such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Reserve, which were also part of Operation Choke Point, commit to similar steps.

Mike Shuetz, owner of Hawkins Guns, said he was livid after federal regulators swooped in and told his primary bank that they had to close his account because he dealt in guns. Clamping down on small-business owners who sell guns endangers the right of a man or woman to buy a weapon to learn to hunt or shoot for sport or defend his home, Mr. Shuetz said.

“It’s a sad day in America when our administration doesn’t respect the rights of Americans,” he said.

U.S. Consumer Coalition, an organization that protects the rights of consumers to purchase goods and services, is spearheading a public campaign against Operation Choke Point.

“We’re going to push back,” he said during a Capitol Hill press conference before the panel’s hearing. “We’re going to ask questions.”

Brennan Appel, owner of Global Hookah, said the program has had a significant impact on his business. The businessman said he was blindsided when Bank of America gave him two weeks to find a new home for his business and personal accounts. He said he was able to find a safe haven with Wells Fargo but remained concerned about the credibility of the banking system.

“Basically, you can’t believe the banking system anymore. You have to have accounts in multiple banks,” he said. “You have to have a backup plan. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. You have to separate your payroll processing. So everything has to be separated, and you have to have a plan B.”

Wells Fargo spokeswoman Jennifer Langan told The Washington Times that the bank “can’t comment on a specific customer due to customer privacy reasons.”

Bank of America did not return requests for comment.

Dawn Loyd, vice president of Advance Cash in Tennessee, said one of her eight cash and loan stores was hurt by the operation when the Bank of Tennessee demanded that the store’s accounts be closed.

Ms. Loyd said she is trying to open accounts with banks in other cities but has had no luck, so her chain is down to seven stores.

Ms. Desguisne expressed regret over not having a backup plan.

“If I had known, I probably would have gone out and tried to get bank accounts other than the one,” she said.

Now, the disgruntled small-business owners are, at the very least, hoping to find some middle ground. Small businesses should have access to secondary creditors should their primary banks cancel their accounts in keeping with the federal program, they said.

“If we’re high-risk, put us under a microscope,” Ms. Desguisne said. “But give us the ability to stay in business.”

Mr. Shuetz said he disagreed with the potential of finding any middle ground if the program’s anti-corruption tactics continue to prevent a small-business owner from making a living.

“It’s all or nothing,” he said of the program. “You’re violating the Constitution, so stop that immediately. There’s already laws in place to regulate businesses and the banking industry. We don’t need to create new things in order to do that.”