Greg Jayne, Opinion page editor
There’s nothing wrong with offering prayers for somebody in need; it’s kind of thoughtful, actually. There is, however, a bit of a problem with charging as much as $35 for a promise to keep them in your thoughts.
So, in 2016, Benjamin Rogovy of Seattle had to pay about $7.7 million back to 160,000 consumers nationwide for running a website that included fake testimonials and fake pastors while offering to pray for people — as long as they were willing to pay. When this fraud came to light, well, let’s just say that Rogovy didn’t have a prayer.
That is because of Washington’s consumer protection division. And when Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose office includes the division, stopped by The Columbian last week, he provided a reminder of the importance of such work.
Since Ferguson became attorney general in 2013, the consumer protection division has grown from 11 attorneys to 27, along with about 50 support staff. “The deputy in charge of the office says you could double the number of attorneys and the professional staff and they could all be busy,” Ferguson said.
“In the budget, there’s no general fund dollars for consumer protection, there’s no tax dollars involved. It pays for itself. There are millions that go back to consumers, and we send millions to the state of Washington. It’s a rare thing in government — a money-maker for the people and the government. And it pays for our entire civil rights team we created.”
You might think that the public does not need protection from predatory businesses. That the buyer should be aware. That if somebody is willing to pay $35 for a prayer or two, that is their right.
I tend to lean toward what Ferguson said at the time of that settlement: “I believe in the power of prayer. What I do not believe in and what I will not tolerate is unlawful businesses that prey upon people — taking advantage of their faith or their need for help — in order to make a quick buck.” Which kind of sums up government at its best.
All of this is particularly relevant at a time when the Trump administration is gutting the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Created as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms in 2010, the bureau has drawn the ire of conservatives and President Donald Trump and Mick Mulvaney, the man Trump appointed to lead it. Mulvaney has stripped the agency of some of its enforcement powers and has removed restrictions on payday lenders and their high-interest loans.
That seems like an odd way to drain the swamp. In fact, it seems more like unleashing the alligators.
The public needs action
Among the CFPB’s actions has been a $100 million fine to Wells Fargo for secretly opening accounts in the name of customers and then charging them for it. And holding accountable mortgage companies that systematically charge higher interest rates for minority applicants, regardless of their credit history. And getting Bank of America and Citibank each to return more than $700 million to customers after the banks misled those customers into purchasing add-ons such as identity-theft protection.
Critics of the bureau claim that such consumer protections unfairly throttle the financial industry. That sounds strange, considering the role the financial industry played in the dumpster fire of a recession that started in 2007. But it fits with the ethos of the modern Republican Party: “We’ll defund and deconstruct government so that it doesn’t work and then say, ‘See, government doesn’t work.’ Mwuuuhahahaha!”
Which brings us back to Ferguson and Washington’s consumer protection division. Among other pending actions, it is suing Purdue Pharma over the state’s opioid crisis. There also have been lawsuits against Comcast, Value Village, 5-Hour Energy and others, all in the name of protecting consumers from misleading claims or predatory practices.
Because sometimes the public needs action more than thoughts and prayers.