Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

June 16, 2017

Fox in The CRA Henhouse

By David Reiss

Law360 quoted me in Treasury’s Fair Lending Review Worries Advocates (behind a paywall). It reads, in part,

President Donald Trump’s Treasury Department said Monday that revisiting a 1977 law aimed at boosting bank lending and branches in poor neighborhoods was a “high priority,” but backers of the Community Reinvestment Act fear that any move by this administration would be aimed at weakening, not modernizing, the law.

Critics and some backers of the Community Reinvestment Act say that the law does not take into account mobile banking and the decline of branch networks among a host of other updates needed to meet the realities of banking in 2017.

While there is some agreement on policy, the politics of reworking the CRA are always difficult. Those politics will be even more difficult with the Trump administration and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who ran into problems with the CRA when he was the chairman of OneWest Bank, leading the review, said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

“A team at Treasury led by the OneWest leadership should give consumer advocates pause,” he said.

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Across the administration, from the U.S. Department of Education to the Department of Justice, civil rights enforcement has taken a back seat to other concerns. And Mnuchin is in the process of populating the Treasury Department with former colleagues from OneWest.

Trump nominated former OneWest CEO Joseph Otting to be comptroller of the currency earlier this month and is reportedly close to nominating former OneWest Vice Chairman and Chief Legal Officer Brian Brooks as deputy Treasury secretary. Brooks is currently the general counsel at Fannie Mae.

Activists who fought the CIT-OneWest merger on CRA grounds say that the placement of those former OneWest executives in positions of authority over the law should raise alarms.

“[Mnuchin’s] bank, OneWest, also had one of the worst community reinvestment records of all the banks that CRC analyzes in California, which raises questions about his motivation in ‘reforming’ the Community Reinvestment Act. Is he interested in reforming it to help communities, or to help the industry do even less?” said Paulina Gonzalez of the California Reinvestment Coalition.

The Treasury secretary has defended his bank’s foreclosure practices and others that drew fair lending advocates’ ire, saying that most of the problems at OneWest were holdovers from IndyMac, the failed subprime lender OneWest’s investors purchased after it failed.

Discussing reforms to the CRA under any administration, particularly a typical Republican administration, would be difficult on its own for lawmakers and inside regulatory agencies, Schaberg said.

“Anybody down in the middle-management tier of any of the banking agencies, they’re not going to touch this because it’s so politically charged,” he said.

The added distrust of the Trump administration and Mnuchin among fair housing advocates makes the prospect of any legislation to reshape even harder to imagine. Even without legislation, new leadership at the regulatory agencies that monitor for CRA compliance could take a lighter touch. And that has fair housing backers on edge.

“In my mind, there’s a fox-in-the-henhouse mentality,” Reiss said.

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