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Monday, Mar 27, 2017
Commentary

Dennis Ross: Don’t buy the spin — Operation Choke Point targets legal businesses

All Americans, entrepreneurs and small businesses across our great country come from very different walks of life. They have taken great risks and share a common dream to start a company that can one day become profitable and provide for their families. Although businesses face incredible hurdles before they succeed, the ones that do survive provide the foundation for our local communities.

Unfortunately, the most alarming hurdle facing businesses today is a Department of Justice initiative known as Operation Choke Point.

Created under the guise of a program to root out banking fraud and money laundering, this initiative has been used by White House administration bureaucrats to pressure and force banks to end relationships with businesses they consider to be objectionable or “high risk.”

The House Financial Services Committee, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House Judiciary have held hearings on this out-of-control program. Peter Weinstock, a partner at a Dallas- based law firm whose practice focuses on corporate and regulatory representation of financial institution franchises, testified before the House Judiciary Committee on July 17, 2014, stating, “The U.S. Department of Justice created Operation Choke Point ostensibly to combat consumer fraud. However, it has become apparent that the program instead seeks to eradicate disfavored businesses.”

This administration has targeted small businesses such as firearm and ammunition dealers, cigar shops, fireworks retailers, pawn stores, payday lenders and others. This back-door effort by this administration to target legitimate law-abiding businesses it does not like, and to coerce banks to choke off relationships with these businesses, is completely unacceptable.

Throughout the country, I have seen the reports in the news of business owners who have had their bank accounts suddenly closed. In Nevada, the owner of a firearms store had his bank account frozen by his bank. A gun manufacturer in Phoenix was dropped by its bank after 12 years of good credit history. In my home state, Florida, a premium cigar and tobacconist store owner in Orlando recently informed me about receiving a letter from his bank stating the bank could no longer provide basic financial services, such as processing credit card transactions and banking deposits.

In each of these cases, the consequences are swift and immediate. Without access to basic banking services, business owners cannot make deposits or make purchases, and are unable to meet their payroll and cannot pay their lease. In essence, the federal government is purposefully creating obstacles to choke legitimate businesses from doing business.

Unfortunately, these targeted business owners do not receive a note from the bank stating that “Due to Operation Choke Point, we regretfully must end our financial relationship with your business.” They are not notified that due to overzealous DOJ employees, their bank made the difficult decision to end their business relationship to spare them the threat of a federal investigation down the road. Instead, these businesses that had their accounts closed are not provided notice prior to discontinuation of services. They simply receive a letter of termination from their banks, often without any explanation and without any level of recourse.

The banks themselves also are victims of overreaching federal bureaucrats. They face a difficult choice to either maintain the banking relationship with a business, some of whom they have had a banking relationship with for many years, or risk the high cost of defending themselves against a federal investigation. To combat this, I have sent letters to the DOJ, FDIC, Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency underlining congressional concern about Operation Choke Point. I also have called on my colleagues to ensure that congressionally appropriated funding is prevented from being used to advance this unprecedented and inappropriate program.

Whether you utilize any of the targeted businesses or not, think about how future administrations could implement similar programs that “choke off” other forms of business. Where does it stop?

Legitimate businesses rely on their banks to grow, hire more employees, pay taxes and provide basic services and products vital to our communities. Moving forward, as a member of the House Financial Services Committee, I will continue to fight to end Operation Choke Point.

U.S. Rep. Dennis A. Ross, R-Lakeland, is a senior deputy majority whip and a member of the Financial Services Committee.

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