WASHINGTON — Angela Martin, a lawyer with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Office of Enforcement, made an impassioned plea before Congress on Wednesday, calling for a culture change at the agency. The hearing followed reports that the CFPB has discriminated against employees, throwing its ongoing investigation of auto finance into question.
Martin, who settled an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint with the CFPB in August, said during her testimony that there were “scores” of other victims. She alleged that women and minorities do not have the same opportunities for advancement within the agency, and that departments are so racially divided that when staff gathers, “it does appear to be the bus from a long time ago where the African Americans are in the back.”
“There is an entire section in consumer response intake that is 100% African American, even the contractors, and it is called ‘the plantation,’” Martin testified. She said the department is also referred to as “the cesspool,” and that employees there do not often have opportunities for promotion.
The hearing comes after American Banker reported in March that documents it obtained showed racial disparities in the bureau’s employee evaluations. According to the documents, which the CFPB later made public, 21% of the bureau’s white employees received the highest possible performance rating in a year-long period ending Sept. 30, 2013, compared to 9% of Hispanics, 10.5% of African Americans and 15.5% of Asians.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), chairman of the Financial Services Committee Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, invited two CFPB officials to testify at the hearing: M. Stacey Bach, assistant director of the Office of Equal Opportunity Employment, and Liza Strong, director of employee relations. The bureau, however, declined to participate.
“It’s unfortunate and deeply troubling that the CFPB refuses to answer questions about these allegations, particularly when the bureau’s grounds for doing so are patently frivolous in light of the fact that their employee is voluntarily appearing to tell her story,” said McHenry in a statement issued last week. “The hearing will go forward, with or without the CFPB’s participation.”
The CFPB’s absence sparked a squabble between House Republicans and Democrats, with Democrats calling for the hearing to be cancelled. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), however, conceded by the end of the hearing that Martin’s compelling testimony had changed her mind.
Also testifying at the hearing was Misty Raucci, an outside investigator hired by the CFPB to review Martin’s claims of discrimination and retaliation. Her heavily redacted report, which was released by POLITICO this month, found that Scott Pluta, the CFPB’s assistant director of the Office of Consumer Response, purposefully retaliated against Martin after she filed an EEO claim. Martin worked as chief counsel of the department at the time, and Pluta gave her an “unacceptable” grade in her performance review and effectively made her subordinates her equals.
Raucci said that during her investigation, “I became a veritable hotline for employees of the CFPB who called me to discuss their own maltreatment at the bureau, mainly at the hands of the assistant director and one of the section chiefs.”
Fewer than half of the people Raucci interviewed for the investigation consented to go on the record due to fear of retaliation, she claimed. Additionally, Raucci was told that because of monetary constraints, she would have to take statements over the phone — something she said the CFPB initially found acceptable but later used to discount Raucci’s findings.
Martin, who was denied a chance by CFPB officials to review Raucci’s findings, said the culture at the bureau makes other employees unlikely to report discrimination and retaliation. “That’s the sole reason I came forward as a whistleblower, to let you know that the problem is bigger than any report that you will see or hear,” Martin told the committee.
In August, Martin reached a settlement with the bureau after a two-minute phone conversation with CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “[He] told me to tell my attorneys to back down because he was trying to secure me a position in enforcement,” Martin said. Martin was moved to the Office of Enforcement, but she is now in the process of filing another complaint after not being given the job she was promised.
Martin said testifying before Congress would probably jeopardize her case against the bureau, but she felt it was necessary in light of the widespread discrimination. In her current department, she said, pay disparities between similarly situated employees reached as high as $60,000 — and those affected are women and minorities.
“People think I’m am here to destroy the bureau or that I’m doing something bad for the bureau,” Martin said. “I will say this is a dark day for the bureau, no doubt. But also by shining a light, we can fix these things and make it a stronger bureau.”