Consumer Bureau’s Complaints Database Is ‘Here to Stay,’ Director Says
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will continue to publish its database of consumer complaints about financial companies, ending — for now — a battle over public access to one of the agency’s most powerful tools.
“The database is here to stay,” Kathleen Kraninger, the bureau’s director, said Wednesday at a consumer conference in Rosemont, Ill., outside Chicago.
Since 2011, the bureau has maintained an open and searchable record of more than one million consumer accusations of inaccurate bills, illegal fees, improper overdraft charges, mistakes on loans and a long list of other issues. Companies have complained that the database unfairly harms their reputations by spreading unverified negative information, but consumer advocates say it’s a vital tool for spotting problems and patterns of bad conduct.
Consumer groups had worried that the database — which contains information the bureau is legally required to collect — could be made private as the bureau shifted in a business-friendly direction under President Trump, who has pushed to reduce government regulation.
Mick Mulvaney, Mr. Trump’s acting chief of staff, who ran the bureau temporarily, suggested shielding the complaints data from public view. He told a banking conference last year, “I don’t see anything in here that says I have to run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government.”
When Mr. Mulvaney initiated a public call for feedback on the bureau’s complaint process, more than 26,000 people, companies and advocacy groups responded. Ms. Kraninger called that outpouring of comments “staggering” and persuasive.
Ms. Kraninger said that the database would remain public and that the bureau would add new features to help consumers contact companies and research answers to common questions. The bureau will also release data visualization and analysis tools to help people interpret the data in context.
“These are the kind of tools that our researchers already use internally, and I think making them available to the public will greatly improve the functionality of the database,” she said.
In a rare moment of alignment, industry trade groups and consumer advocacy organizations were cautiously optimistic about Ms. Kraninger’s announcement.
“I’m gratified that the complaint narratives will remain public and hope that the C.F.P.B. will continue to encourage consumers to submit complaints when they face problems,” said Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce called Ms. Kraninger’s plans “a step in the right direction.” Richard Hunt, the chief executive of the Consumer Bankers Association, said the changes Ms. Kraninger outlined would help make the bureau’s complaints system fairer.
While consumer advocates were heartened by the preservation of the public database on Wednesday, they were lining up to criticize another decision Ms. Kraninger made this week. On Tuesday, she flipped the bureau’s position in a court fight about its independence, joining critics who say its leadership structure is unconstitutional.
The legislation that created the consumer bureau contained a provision saying that the bureau’s director could be removed only for cause, defined as “inefficiency, neglect of duty or malfeasance.” That provision has been repeatedly challenged in court by adversaries who have said it gives the bureau’s director too much unchecked power — a position the Justice Department took early in Mr. Trump’s presidency.
The bureau had resisted, maintaining that its structure was legally permissible — until this week. Consumer groups including the National Consumer Law Center and Public Citizen criticized Ms. Kraninger’s reversal, saying it undermined Congress’s ability to create independent agencies.
In her speech on Wednesday, Ms. Kraninger urged the Supreme Court to take up a case involving Seila Law, a California firm that has asked the court to hear its challenge to the agency’s structure, including the terms of the director position.
“My decision to no longer defend the removal provision does not mean that the bureau will stop its work,” she said. “We will continue to defend the actions that the bureau takes now and has taken in the past.”
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