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Published: Saturday, 1/21/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

Cordray zeroes in on what matters: protecting consumers

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

When Richard Cordray called, late in the day, I thought it was a prank.

I had given up trying to grab a nanosecond of Mr. Cordray's time since his controversial recess appointment to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Emails back and forth with the bureau were polite but not promising. Finally, I was penciled in for a brief telephone interview.

Before it could begin, the interview was off. Then it was on, but he was running late. Then it was off again. The political pressure cooker enveloping the new boss seemed to prevent any chance of personal contact.

But there I was, walking my exuberant dog in the town square when my cell phone rang. The voice on the other end said: "Hi, this is Rich Cordray."

At first, I thought it was a friend who knew about my endless entreaties for an interview and was pulling my leg. I answered with a skeptical: "Really?" The bemused caller responded in the affirmative. Really.

"I can talk now," Mr. Cordray said. I couldn't. I had my hands full with the dog, if you know what I mean. He laughed, promised to call back in 15 minutes, and did.

In the speediest q-and-a on record, he rattled off well-scripted responses to well-anticipated queries. In short order, his handlers interrupted to hustle him off to his next appointment.

Moments earlier, the besieged bureaucrat had alluded to the frenetic pace of his position with a quip about how his short official time on the job had seemed a lot longer than a week.

The furor over President Obama's recess end-run around obdurate Senate Republicans "is not germane to my work to protect 300 million people," Mr. Cordray said. "That's who I serve with better oversight."

The former Ohio attorney general may look like a former Boy Scout with every merit badge in the book, but he sounds like a taskmaster prepared to leave his mark on Washington . His first priority: reviewing unregulated segments of the financial services industry.

The new consumer watchdog aims to level the playing field between banks and nonbanks through zealous supervision of the latter, "looking at documents, asking tough questions." Americans need a strong defense against unscrupulous financial operators -- from mortgage brokers to payday lenders -- who have slipped through regulatory cracks, he said.

Uneven regulations or none at all distorted markets and destroyed them, Mr. Cordray said. "The bad practices drove out the good." He vows to police the financial industry better against abuse.

The so-called sheriff of Wall Street said he would uphold justice in the marketplace. But he acknowledged that the extent of his authority to regulate and enforce consumer protection laws is a hot topic among Republicans who blocked his confirmation.

"There are lots of accountability checks written into the structure of the bureau," Mr. Cordray said. "There are internal audits and other interlocking provisions in the law" to ensure that the agency will not operate unchecked.

For six months as an unconfirmed political appointee, and now as the appointed head of the agency inspired by Harvard University economist and Wall Street critic Elizabeth Warren, Mr. Cordray is making the rounds on Capital Hill to befriend skeptical lawmakers.

"I've talked with legislators of both parties," he said, "and given them a personal commitment to provide the information they need to build an in-depth relationship" with the bureau.

Yet Senate Republicans, who refused to confirm anyone to head an agency they fault, are talking about retaliation for the recess appointment. Sen. Charles Grassley, (R., Iowa) the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is urging his party to block future presidential nominations as payback.

Toeing the GOP line is Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who challenged the legitimacy of Mr. Cordray's appointment under the law that created the agency. Other GOP pushbacks might include a lawsuit.

But as partisan bickering escalates during a presidential election year, Mr. Cordray said he will focus on what matters: safeguarding consumers against destructive market practices.

"I don't deal with the distractions," he said. "I focus on protecting consumers."

Good for us.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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