Congressional ethics investigators will review allegations that South Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings and 10 other House members took bribes by accepting campaign contributions from the payday lending industry shortly before or after taking official actions in support of the industry.
The Campaign for Accountability, a Washington-based watchdog group, asked for the probe in a 17-page letter to the Office of Congressional Ethics on Monday.
“The timing of the official acts each of these 11 members took…suggests the campaign contributions were made in exchange for legislative assistance in violation of federal law and House rules,” says the letter by executive director Anne L. Weismann.
The official actions allegedly included sponsoring or co-sponsoring legislation to impair the ability of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to regulate the payday lending industry and eliminate consumer protections against certain payday lending practices.
“If, as it appears, these representatives accepted donations to their campaigns and PACs in direct exchange for specific action on behalf of the payday lending industry, they may have violated the bribery statute,” wrote Weismann. She noted that Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ is currently facing a bribery indictment “for allegedly performing official acts in exchange for a contribution to a super PAC that was earmarked for his Senate race.”
Other anti-corruption measures that Weismann said were possibly violated: honest services fraud and the illegal gratuity statute.
The letter was triggered by a recent report by a group called Allied Progress, which first connected the campaign contributions from payday lenders to the congressmen. Payday lenders generally provide short-term, unsecured cash advances to wage earners at high rates of interest.
Nine Republicans and two Democrats, including Hastings, are cited in the investigation request. They are: Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tn; Rep. Scott Garrett, R-NJ; Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Tx; Rep. Blaine Leutkemeyer, R-Mo; Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-NC; Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-NY; Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Tx; Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Tx; Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio; Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Ks.
Many are members of the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees the financial services industry. They include Chairman Jeb Hensarling, Vice Chairman McHenry, Fincher, Garrett, Leutkemeyer, Meeks, Neugebauer and Stivers.
Sessions chairs the powerful House Rules Committee, of which Hastings and Stivers are also members. Yoder is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Here’s what Hastings, a 23-year House member whose district includes much of Broward and parts of Palm Beach and Hendry counties, is accused of in the letter:
- May 21, 2013. Hastings co-sponsored HR 1566, legislation that Allied Progress said would “undermine oversight of payday lenders by allowing them to bypass the regulatory authority of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and stronger state laws.” On March 27, 2013, he received a $2,500 campaign contribution from payday lending executive Ian MacKechnie of Amscot Financial. MacKechnie contributed another $500 to Hasting’s campaign on June 28, following Hasting’s support for HR 1566. In all, Hastings and five other congressmen who supported the measure, or similar legislation, received a total of more than $72,000 in contributions from industry executives or PACs, the letter says.
- July 10, 2014. Hastings co-sponsored HR 4986, a bill aimed at ending Operation Choke Point, a Department of Justice initiative investigating banks and their connections to payday lenders, payment processors and others at higher risk for fraud and money laundering. Three weeks earlier, Hastings accepted a $2,500 contribution from Cash America International Inc. PAC, a payday lending industry PAC. Industry PACs sent another $26,000 to the campaigns of four other congressmen.
The Office of Congressional Ethics is an independent, nonpartisan fact-finding body governed by a board of private citizens.
A spokeswoman declined to comment. But information on its website explains that complaints can trigger a two-phase review process that can take about 90 days. If the board finds substantial reason to believe the allegations, it must refer the matter to the House Ethics Committee with a recommendation for further review or dismissal.
Hastings’ office did not respond to requests for comment by email or telephone.