Top House Republicans are asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end an Obama-era Justice Department program that has ensnared firearms dealers and other legitimate merchants while attempting to cut off credit to sham businesses.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and the other GOP lawmakers said in an Aug. 10 letter that they want the department and related federal agencies to formally “repudiate” Operation Choke Point guidelines. The program attempted to discourage banks from offering financial services to “high risk” customers but was accused of unfairly going after legal businesses including firearms dealers.
"Operation Choke Point was an Obama Administration initiative that destroyed legitimate businesses to which that Administration was ideologically opposed (e.g., firearms dealers) by intimidating financial institutions into denying banking services to those businesses," they wrote. "The damage from this initiative lingers, and [we] request that you take immediate corrective action."
The lawmakers say the roughly six-year-old program led to “abuses” by financial regulators. They are calling for formal policy statements from the Justice Department, the Federal Reserve Board and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to end such practices.
“Financial institutions should be given explicit assurance that they may serve these unfairly targeted industries just like any other legitimate businesses,” the letter states. “Institutions should also be encouraged to restore long-standing relationships with lawful, targeted industries.”
The letter was signed by five House members including Goodlatte, of Virginia; Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the chamber’s Financial Services Committee; and California Rep. Darrell Issa, former chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Affairs.
The Justice Department did not respond immediately Monday to questions about whether federal officials will act on the request.
The letter also states Obama administration attorneys, over the course of six months in 2013, issued as many as 60 administrative subpoenas to banks doing business with gun-related entities including payday lenders.
In addition, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Comptroller of the Currency flagged some of the businesses as “High Risk Merchants/Activities,” which hurt their ability to borrow money, the lawmakers said in the letter.
They acknowledged that the FDIC has taken some corrective measures, including a 2015 recommendation that banks “judge customer relationships on a case-by-case basis rather than declining to provide banking services to entire categories of customers.”
The lawmakers say the FDIC also ended its “high risk” list but never retracted its assertion that the industries listed are particularly high-risk.
The letter follows a June 22 House Judiciary Committee meeting with some of those apparently targeted under the program -- including gun dealers and payday lenders as well as amusement game owners.
“They all had similar stories of longstanding banking relationships suddenly terminated without any evidence of heightened risk or wrongdoing,” the letter said. “A firearms manufacturer who had been in business over 40 years, described that he held accounts at over twenty financial institutions and within a short period of time all were terminated.”