When reports of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Operation Choke Point surfaced in 2013, the Obama Administration insisted that the program was meant to stop fraudulent activity. The main idea, supposedly, was to “choke off” illegal businesses’ access to funds.
According to one DOJ official, the operation was designed to change “the structures within the financial system that allow all kinds of fraudulent merchants to operate,” with the intent of “choking them off from the very air they need to survive.”
Operation Choke Point was reportedly an effort to intimidate banks that were doing business with merchants deemed “high risk” by the Obama Administration. Allegedly, DOJ was pressuring banks to stop doing business with various online merchants, ranging from drug paraphernalia shops to gun retailers.
The fact that completely legal payday lenders were being punished was, purportedly, unintentional. Erring on the side of caution, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Darrell Issa (R–CA) opened an investigation of Operation Choke Point.
Based on the initial investigation, it appeared that DOJ may have gone beyond merely targeting illegal activity. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Representatives Issa and Jim Jordan (R–OH) claimed that the operation was “needlessly punishing good actors with the bad, and threatening legitimate merchants’ access to the payment transfer system.”
Operation Choke Point also gave the appearance that the government was trying to shut down a functioning industry while simultaneously trying to replace it with a taxpayer-backed version.
The latest committee report indicates that the DOJ worked closely with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to pressure banks to accede to this political agenda. If true, this news is particularly disturbing, because the FDIC’s acting general counsel recently testified that the FDIC was not substantively involved in Operation Choke Point.
Given what seems to be emerging, it may be time to widen this investigation to include banking regulators such as the FDIC. Operation Choke Point has the potential to negatively impact millions of workers engaged in legal economic activity, so all government agencies involved should be held to account.