Archive for the ‘Consumer Protection’ Category

497px-edward_snowden-2Oliver Stone’s 2016 film Snowden debuted at the height of a controversy over whether or not President Obama should pardon Edward Snowden. His defenders argue that his disclosures prompted important legal and policy changes, while his opponents argue that he’s a criminal who should come back to the United States to stand trial.

The film itself paints a portrait of Snowden as a young conservative from a military background. He begins his career with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with a loyalty to the United States and a desire to serve his country. As he transitions through different positions with private contractors in the intelligence community, he becomes increasingly disturbed by the breadth of government mass surveillance systems. What he witnesses at work haunts him – he develops an aversion to being photographed – and plagues his relationship with his girlfriend. Eventually, it leads him to flee to a hotel room in Hong Kong where he works in secret with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. They race against the clock to make his story public before the government can arrest him.

The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s easy to get lost in the controversy of Snowden’s disclosures, but it’s important to remember the context of his decision to go public. Snowden was familiar with the whistleblowers in the intelligence community who came before him. Despite making their own disclosures through designated channels within the government, these workers had no safeguards against the severe retaliation they faced.

Take the case of Ed Loomis, a former National Security Agency employee and contractor within the intelligence community. After he reported an ineffective and wasteful surveillance program through a designated government hotline, the government responded by revoking his Top Secret security clearance, rendering him unable to work in the intelligence community. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also raided his home for five hours. He and his wife watched as agents in Kevlar vests confiscated their possessions.

Contractors in the intelligence community deserve better than what happened to Ed Loomis. Public Citizen and many other organizations committed to open and transparent government support extending protections to contractors who blow the whistle on waste, fraud, and abuse in the intelligence community.  Without safeguards against employer retaliation, whistleblowers may either stay silent about government wrongdoing or make disclosures through the media.

Lawmakers recognize the urgent need for reform, but change has been slow. In 2015, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced a bill to extend whistleblower protections to contractors in the intelligence community. In theory, this bill should not be contentious. Certain intelligence community contractors had access to such protections for a limited time without any evidence of negative consequences to national security. But, lawmakers controversially revoked these rights in 2012. So far, Congress has failed to take action on Sen. McCaskill’s critical measure.

Snowden ends with familiar audio clips from the 2016 presidential primary debates where the candidates voiced their opinions about his actions. Their reactions are mixed, but frustratingly, there is no discussion of the much-needed whistleblower protection reforms like those in Sen. McCaskill’s bill.

The controversy over Snowden and his 2013 disclosures is unlikely to end anytime soon. However, if policymakers want to prevent future national security leaks, they should make whistleblowing safe for all intelligence community workers – including contractors. Congress should enact Sen. McCaskill’s bill to protect these individuals who bravely risk so much in serving the public good.

Our country is still reeling in the aftermath of the greed-fueled contagion of the 2008 economic collapse and Wall Street getting caught in villainous behavior is daily news. The anger of the American public toward Big Banks that were bailed out while average citizens went under—institutions that continue to get away with mere slaps on the wrist to settle claims of severe wrongdoing— is the foundation of the current populist political surge. It’s not surprising that Hollywood wants to get in on the act, and they should be applauded.

oneheart-invite215The Academy Award-winning  film The Big Short spotlighted for the movie-going public the complex web of financial maneuverings that tumbled down like a house of cards, leaving millions without homes and millions more with empty nest eggs. “A-listers” Julia Roberts, George Clooney, and Jodie Foster have even embraced the “us-versus-Wall Street” theme in the recently-available-for-the-small-screen film, Money Monster. The plot focuses on the problems that cascade from an everyman feeling wronged by a high-speed trading firm, and a “glitch” that bottomed out the value of a stock. Without commenting on the quality of the film, it can be said with all conviction that such glitches are not fiction.

In May of 2010, there was a flash crash that brought the curtain down on a trillion dollars of market value in a matter of minutes. And, in October 2013, in an unexpected twist, the normally very steady U.S. Treasury bond market went on a wild ride that was eventually blamed partially on high-frequency trading, computer programs called algorithms that automatically buy and sell financial instruments in much less than a blink of an eye.

Why should we risk our market stability with such rampant speculation? Spoiler alert: we don’t have to!

Right on cue to tamping-down on undesirable market behavior is an idea associated with Nobel prize-winning economist James Tobin, who called for a corrective tax on speculative trading that would  “throw some sand in the wheels” of the market to slow it down. Dozens of countries already have these taxes in place and the U.S. had a tax on Wall Street taxes from 1914 through 1965. Public Citizen has long advocated for reinstating a tax on Wall Street trades to protect consumers.

Not a Hollywood blockbuster, but another recent film, The Same Heart, also chronicles the rise of the high-speed trading ‘bot. However, the problem toward which the documentary film’s lens is primarily pointed is the horrible injustice of childhood poverty. But, instead of showing only the negative—the unthinkable hurdles of hunger, disease, and violence that billions of children face worldwide—it focuses on a possible solution: taxing Wall Street trades. The Same Heart makes the ethical and economic case for the wealthiest among us, the financial elite who make millions and billions of dollars in profit from financial transactions, to fund programs that invest in the world’s youth.

On September 27, at 1 pm in the Capitol Visitor’s Center, Public Citizen, in coordination with Media Voices for Children, which produced the film, the Child Labor Coalition, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is hosting an event called “Investing in our Future, One Transaction at a Time,” a panel discussion and screening of an excerpt of The Same Heart. I will be center stage for a dialogue with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), filmmaker Len Morris, and experts from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Communications Workers of America, the Institute for Policy Studies, and the National Consumers League. In addition to speaking about how the tens of billions in estimated yearly revenues from a Wall Street tax could benefit the next generation, I will outline how current legislative proposals to reinstate a tax on Wall Street trades to make markets less volatile and work better for average investors.

A fairer market does not have to be a celluloid dream. If we want to flip today’s script: the robbers being the banks themselves, bad guys costumed in pinstripes, never jail stripes, we need to take on Wall Street. The first step is making Wild West Wall Street stock market gamblers pay their fair share by taxing their trades at a fraction of a percent.

And, even if you’re not in DC to make the movie and panel event, you can still help set the scene for a legislative win. Please tell your U.S. Representative that you want her or him to be a hero and cosponsor the Putting Main Street FIRST (Finishing Irresponsible Reckless Speculative Trading) Act (HR 5745). If you’ve already done that, be a social media superhero and help spread the word about the Take on Wall Street fight by sharing this blog on Twitter with the hashtags #WallStTax or #TakeOnWallSt.

With your help, soon we will reach a critical consensus: no longer will we let the One Percent steal the show.

Just some of the over 700,000 signature delivered to Mylan

Just some of the over 700,000 signature delivered to Mylan, Photo Credit: Ed Grystar W. PA. Coalition for Single Payer Healthcare

By Sean Grant

Protesters on Tuesday delivered petitions to Mylan’s corporate headquarters just outside of Pittsburgh demanding that the company end price gouging EpiPen users, they did not expect a warm welcome. They knew beforehand that they would not be allowed to approach the building. In front of TV cameras, Mylan accepted the petitions on a wheeled cart.

But Mylan representatives who collected the petition signatures – gathered by Public Citizen, MoveOn.org Civic Action and others – offered no comment to the media, raising the question of whether the company will heed the call of the nearly 700,000 Americans who signed the petitions. The public clearly is outraged at Mylan’s raising the price of EpiPens by more than 500 percent since 2007 for no apparent reason other than greed.

Protesters were not allowed to enter Mylan's visitor entrance at their building

Protesters were not allowed to enter Mylan’s visitor entrance, Photo Credit: Ed Grystar W. PA. Coalition for Single Payer Healthcare

Before the petition delivery, Mylan twice announced new measures to appease the public, but these weak attempts at appearing contrite only further enraged people. As Public Citizen President Robert Weissman stated, “It’s not enough to offer coupons and it’s not enough to offer an overpriced generic version of its own branded product. The company must roll back its unjustified and outrageous price increases.” Read those press releases here and here.

As the petitions were rolled away on dollies to chants of “people over profit,” attention shifted to Mike Laffin, a member of Mylan’s communications team, who was sent out to deal with the reporters clamoring to ask questions. Laffin, however, could provide nothing more substantive than “Any other questions need to be directed to our communications team or customer service.” He repeated the phrase several times, perhaps most forcefully when one reporter asked if Mylan had any plans to lower the price of the EpiPen further.

Considering how ineffective the customer service department has been so far, referring reporters to it – by a live person from the communications department – doesn’t seem like the brightest PR move. But the company keeps making missteps, it seems. It is imperative Mylan finally listen and take substantive action.

View a video of the petition delivery 

 

The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) proposed rule to restrict forced arbitration – a tactic banks and lenders use to block consumers from challenging illegal behavior in court – has been met with widespread support. Below are selected highlights of comments from individual consumers, elected officials, advocacy groups and newspaper editorial boards who weighed in during the public comment period, which ended on Aug. 22, 2016.

 More Than 100,000 Consumers Across the Country Support the Rule

Between the proposed rule’s announcement on May 5, and the close of the comment period on Aug. 22, at least 100,000 individual consumers across the country submitted comments or signed petitions urging the CFPB to restrict forced arbitration in consumer finance. On the other side, FreedomWorks – a conservative political group affiliated with the Tea Party – claims it “generated nearly 15,000 responses opposed to the rule.”

Of the 100,000-plus positive comments, 69 percent of consumers voiced general support for the proposed rule, emphasizing that “[b]arring consumers from joining class actions directly opposes the public interest.” Another 31 percent pushed the CFPB to expand the rule’s coverage and “take the extra step to prohibit individual arbitration in the final rule.”comment chart
This overwhelming support for action against forced arbitration echoes a recent national poll, which found that, by a margin of 3 to 1, voters in both parties support restoring consumers’ right to bring class action lawsuits against banks and lenders.
Key Statements of Support

38 U.S. Senators commend CFPB for proposed rule

“Recognizing the urgent need to address these troubling practices, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010 to improve accountability, strengthen the financial system and establish the CFPB. Dodd-Frank included several restrictions on the use of forced arbitration, including a mandate for the CFPB to take action on arbitration. Congress specifically directed the CFPB to study the use of forced arbitration in connection with the offering of consumer financial products and services, and authorized it to ‘prohibit or impose conditions or limitations on the use of’ such agreements based on the study results.”

65 members of the U.S. House of Representatives praise the rule

“Consistent with the bureau’s exhaustive study on forced arbitration, which found that forced arbitration restricts consumers’ access to relief in disputes with financial service providers by limiting class actions, the proposed rule is a critical step to protect the public interest by ensuring that consumers receive redress for systemic unlawful conduct… There is overwhelming evidence that class-action waivers in financial products and services agreements undermine the public interest.”

18 state attorneys general want to extend the reach of state enforcement efforts

“Although we believe consumers will be best served by the total prohibition of mandatory, pre-dispute clauses in consumer financial contracts and we encourage the bureau to consider regulations to that effect, the proposed rules provide a substantial benefit to consumers by restoring their fundamental right to join together to be heard in court when common disputes arise in the commercial marketplace. Many of our respective consumer protection laws include private right of action provisions, the purpose of which is to complement and extend the reach of our state enforcement efforts.”

State legislators from 14 states say the rule is “critical to restoring a healthy and vibrant federalism”

“Because of these resource limitations, states rely on the private cause of action to give effect to their consumer protection laws. Arbitration agreements that undermine the effectiveness of the private cause of action undermine the force and effectiveness of state consumer protection law too… States often serve as the ‘laboratories of democracy’ that allow for experimentation with consumer protection regulation. This experimentation is critical to the calibration of a regulatory scheme that allows for easy access to safe and affordable credit. When consumers cannot enforce state consumer protection laws, lawmakers like us cannot measure the efficacy of those laws and cannot observe the effects of those laws as they evolve through litigation. That stifles the healthy development of consumer protection laws nationwide.”

The Military Coalition, representing 5.5 million servicemembers, applauds the rule

“[Class action bans] are particularly abusive when enforced against service members, who may not be in a position to individually challenge a financial institution’s illegal or unfair practices because of limited resources or frequent relocations or deployment… Our nation’s veterans should not be deprived of the constitutional rights and freedoms that they put their lives on the line to protect, including the right to have their claims heard in a trial by a jury when their rights are violated. The catastrophic consequences these clauses pose for our all-voluntary military fighting force’s morale and our national security are vital reasons for the CFPB to act quickly to finalize the regulations.”

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In May, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced they wanted feedback on their plan to curb forced arbitration clauses.

binding-contract-948442_640Public Citizen members sent a remarkable 27,890 comments to the CFPB. Once they are added in, our members alone will have tripled the total amount of comments (based on the numbers reported by CFPB’s website around Monday’s closing deadline).

For such a previously under-the-radar issue, this is a huge accomplishment.

Forced arbitration is the latest trick corporations are using to avoid accountability and keep consumer complaints out of public courts. Public Citizen calls them rip-off clauses, because the fine print has crept into contracts everywhere, from Amazon to Chase to Pokémon Go. Consumers are unknowingly signing away their rights to take future complaints to court. Instead, they’re decided by private companies or individuals chosen by the corporation in a kangaroo-court called an arbitration proceeding.

The problem doesn’t end there. Often these rip-off clauses also prevent consumers from joining together in a class action lawsuit. This is critical, because it often doesn’t make sense for consumers to fight companies alone when potential damages are small. Take for example James Pendergast, who was charged $20 by Sprint for “roaming” while he was in his house.  A lawyer told him the case would take six figures to take to trial and there was the possibility he would be on the hook for Sprint’s legal bills. Almost no one would take on such a small dollar case by themselves; which is why class action suits are an important tool for consumers to band together to level the playing field.

We applaud the steps being taken by CFPB Director Richard Cordray and his staff (urged on by our members’ call to action) to ban forced arbitration language from financial services consumer contracts.

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