Over the past two weeks, conservative media has been warning of a new menace loose in the corridors of Washington, a “rogue” agent “burrowing” into the federal bureaucracy to mount a “coup” that could shatter the rule of law and shred the Constitution in a deranged bid for unaccountable power.
It’s the type of conspiracy theory popular in Facebook groups and Reddit forums that cater to fringe paranoia. But in this case, these ominous concerns are coming from Republican senators. They’re the latest salvo in a quixotic, yearslong battle the GOP has waged against the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), an agency Congress created in 2010 to streamline federal oversight of abusive banking practices. And the main target of this impassioned vitriol is a 34-year-old bureaucrat named Leandra English.
English, according to interviews with several former colleagues, is, well ― she’s boring. Not dull. Plenty of people commended her energy and intellect. But someone who specializes in work that doesn’t demand a spotlight. After earning a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, she’s built a career as a Washington functionary, changing federal agencies every few years as new opportunities arose, distinguishing herself by working long hours and, as multiple people said, “keeping the trains running on time.”
“At the bureau, she was known as somebody with no ego,” notes Patricia McCoy, former CFPB assistant director for mortgage markets. “Her talent in cutting through red tape was widely recognized.”
“She worked later than probably anybody I know,” says Chris Vaeth, who spent five years at the CFPB, ultimately leading its Office of Community Affairs.
English declined to comment for this story.
The bulk of that work took place at the CFPB, where English started in 2010 and returned after separate stints at the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management. She worked on the transition team that put the nascent agency on its feet. As deputy director for external affairs, she was charged with such radical activities as outreach to community banks and the establishment of a consumer complaint system. She’s been deputy chief operations officer and deputy chief of staff. Prior to the election last year, she applied for a job as the bureau’s chief of staff, which she started in January.
And she’s effective. The consumer complaint system works. Even bank lobbyists pressing for lighter regulation acknowledge some grudging admiration. “I like Leandra,” Consumer Bankers Association CEO Richard Hunt told American Banker. “I think she was a terrific chief of staff.”
Then, on Nov. 24, English took a career risk that landed her name in the papers. When CFPB Director Richard Cordray resigned to run for office in Ohio, he named English deputy director. English accepted the nod, knowing it was a politically controversial appointment ― a deliberate attempt to prevent President Donald Trump from installing a loyalist hostile to the agency’s mission without at least going through the Senate confirmation process. Under the Dodd-Frank Act, the 2010 law that established the agency, the deputy director becomes acting director whenever the director himself is “absent or unavailable.” English was, she believed, now in charge of the agency she had helped found.
But the president was apparently unhappy with this reasoning. Over Thanksgiving weekend, he named his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, acting head of the CFPB. English sued, and the question of who is actually running the agency is now making its way through federal court.
Mulvaney is ideologically hostile to the bureau. He once called it a “sick, sad” joke. At a news conference last Monday, he declared that it had been “trampling on capitalism.” This is rather feverish rhetoric to describe an agency that essentially guards against petty theft. Over the past six years, the CFPB has returned roughly $12 billion in ill-gotten gains from financial institutions to over 29 million consumers. For individual families, that can mean substantive relief ― hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of dollars over bogus charges or deceptive contracts.
But it’s hardly a threat to American capitalism, which has grown from a $16 trillion annual enterprise the day the CFPB opened its doors to an over $17 trillion operation today. The agency’s most recent major enforcement action was a $100 million fine imposed against Wells Fargo for secretly creating millions of bank accounts for customers who had never asked for them.
In Mulvaney’s installation, CFPB’s leadership saw an effort from the Trump administration to dismantle an organization they had constructed from scratch.
As somebody who saw her work and values her highly, I’m just really offended at the attempt to portray her as some kind of venal, spotlight-grabbing carpetbagger. Holly Petraeus, former assistant director at the CFPB
English and her supporters are perfectly aware they may well lose their case. An early court ruling has already come down in Trump’s favor, and the CFPB’s own general counsel has issued a memo siding with Mulvaney, who says he would keep English as deputy director if he ultimately prevails. If Trump were simply better organized, he could sidestep the entire affair by just naming a full-time director and getting him or her confirmed by the Senate.
But it’s hard to build things in Washington that genuinely work, and very easy to destroy them. To English and her allies, even a long-shot bid to postpone or mitigate the damage is better than a full surrender.
That’s the not-so-secret reason Republicans expend so much venom on the CFPB. Though plenty of the CFPB’s enemies in the GOP have accepted robust campaign contributions from the financial sector, the agency poses a much more serious threat to conservative ideology than it does to any donor’s bottom line. The financial industry has been booking handsome profits throughout the CFPB’s existence ― the $12 billion it has had to give back didn’t put an end to big bonuses, or force any legitimate businesses to close up shop. The CFPB instead serves as a constant institutional reminder that government can ― if it relies on the right people ― actually get things done.
And so the Republican attacks on English don’t accuse her of waste or incompetence or any of the other stock conservative objections to bureaucracy. They have instead portrayed her as a dangerous mastermind.
“This rogue employee is trying to ... run the agency as an unaccountable fourth branch of government,” wrote nine GOP senators, including Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in a letter to Mulvaney.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), meanwhile, penned a lengthy conspiratorial inquiry to Kathleen McGettigan, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, accusing English of “burrowing” into the CFPB for political purposes. Johnson wanted to know whether English had “abused” the hiring process by securing the chief of staff job in January.
The criticism has outraged English’s former colleagues.
“As somebody who saw her work and values her highly, I’m just really offended at the attempt to portray her as some kind of venal, spotlight-grabbing carpetbagger,” says Holly Petraeus, a former assistant director at the CFPB who retired this year. “She’s not that at all.”
“The things they’re saying are so ridiculous. They just say the absolute opposite of what is true,” says Elizabeth Vale, who served as director of external affairs for the CFPB. “She could have gone and made a lot of money somewhere. She is a true, dedicated public servant who wants to make a real difference in this world ... if you asked me to put the people I admire most as public servants on that list, she would be in the top five.”
Vale, who also worked with former senior adviser Valerie Jarrett in the Obama White House, now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
That is the ultimate tragedy of the CFPB. Eventually, English will lose, one way or another. Trump or Vice President Mike Pence or someone else will get around to naming a full-time director and for a few months or maybe even a couple of years, devoted public servants will try to hang on.
But capable people like English will only stick around for so long in a place where the top brass is determined to prevent them from actually accomplishing anything. They’ll accept other job offers, finding a different quiet, thankless way to contribute to society. The CFPB will decay into just another dysfunctional Washington paper-mill and banks will become steadily more shameless in their reliance on predatory practices. Not because it is inevitable, but because a handful of people in power will decide it should be so.