Rep. Maxine Waters confronts big banks, credit bureaus and Russian trolls

By Joe Piasecki

Rep. Maxine Waters is leading a drumbeat to impeach Trump
Photo by Maria Martin

Few people draw more public animosity from the alt-right than Rep. Maxine Waters.

The 26-year member of the House whose district includes Westchester and Playa del Rey is a favorite target of conspiracy theorist radio host Alex Jones. Bill O’Reilly mocked her “James Brown wig.” A Twitter account linked to Russian political operatives spread false information (retweeted by Donald Trump Jr.) and racially divisive rhetoric to draw hecklers to her spring district town hall. Trump confidante and former Paul Manafort business partner Roger Stone has been out campaigning for one of her longshot 2018 Republican challengers: a man Waters already defeated in 2016 with 76% of the vote — before he was convicted of illegally placing an electronic tracking device on his estranged wife’s car on Valentine’s Day.

You’d think they know by now that “Auntie Maxine,” as young progressives are calling her, doesn’t just sit there and take it. If anything, she thrives on such attacks. Dishes it right back.

At age 79, Waters is leading the drumbeat to impeach President Trump. Last week she demanded Twitter come clean about Kremlin-managed accounts. She sparked an internet sensation in August for countering evasive congressional testimony by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin with the refrain “Reclaiming My Time.” Got an apology out of O’Reilly. Just this week some kids went trick-or-treating dressed as Maxine Waters.

Outside of the Washington D.C. circus — specifically, chatting over coffee in the IHOP at Sepulveda and Manchester boulevards — Waters is just as comfortable talking about her district. She’s excited about the Westchester Mental Health Guild’s annual Holiday Home Tour this Sunday, light rail expansion to LAX, and the airport’s agreement to abandon north runway expansion.

“Westchester is a community I wish people could take some lessons from. They don’t take any crap,” she says. “Whether you’re LAX or dealing with the wetlands, the community will organize. Westchester people really love their community and organize around their issues.”

As the ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, where she was a protégé of retired Rep. Barney Frank, Waters’ latest issue is to buttress and expand financial industry consumer protections initiated by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

To that effect, Waters recently introduced two bills: the Megabank Accountability and Consequences Act, which would empower the feds to revoke bank charters and punish executives for wide-scale fraud; and the Comprehensive Consumer Credit Reporting Reform Act, which would trigger federal oversight of the three national credit bureaus.


How even is the playing field between lenders and borrowers?

I have heard so many complaints about our credit bureaus for so many years, and the complaints are always the same: “I’ve been charged with not paying bills that I’ve paid”; “They have me confused with someone else”; “They will not return my calls.” And it’s true: The credit bureaus control all of this information about you. It’s your information, but they own it. We basically have a monopoly of three big credit bureaus, and they can determine whether you can get credit to make purchases that can make a difference in your quality of life. So I decided it was time for reform. Little did I know [Equifax was] going to get hacked into after I had introduced this legislation. But that’s the intent of it: to make sure consumers are taken seriously and handled fairly, make sure their information is not misused, and that they can get help when information keeping them from getting credit is wrong.


What’s the biggest hurdle facing financial industry reform?

Whenever a piece of legislation pops up that may interfere with the way the financial industry would like to do business, the lobbyists are on it right away. They sit in the committees. They listen to everything. If they need an amendment, they know how to get it done. If they need to block a bill, they know how to do that, too. The businesses are well represented in the Congress of the United States — consumers, not so well.

With Dodd-Frank we created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and consumers are finally getting someone looking out for their interests. But the bureau is under attack constantly by the opposite side of the aisle. Now that we have Trump and his administration is in charge, we will either lose the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
or see it substantially weakened.


How would your Megabank Accountability and Consequences Act change the relationship between big banks and government?

Before the recession, most of our prudential regulators had not done their jobs, had not done the oversight required of them. The U.S. Treasury, the OCC, the FDIC, the SEC — all of them had a role to play, and they let the consumers down. The SEC, the cop on the Wall Street block, they’ve not had the resources they need to do the work. Now we have members of Congress who want to make sure they don’t have those resources.

In Dodd-Frank we have what is known as an orderly resolution authority, which is the way we’re supposed to be able to shut banks down. But it’s very difficult, and we’ve not seen any efforts to do so. So I was looking to rein the banks in — particularly Wells Fargo, because it had emerged as a real problem bank wreaking havoc on consumers. They created millions of accounts in people’s names without consent, and charged them fees in many instances. That was a real scandal, so now I’m focusing on how we can basically get rid of the charter they have. They’ve been fined, just as most of our megabanks have been fined constantly for fraud, consumer fraud. But to the banks it’s just the cost of doing business.

We need to require the regulators to utilize the existing authorities to punish banks when they display a pattern of abusive behavior, and my bill would force them to do that. That includes the ability to shut down a megabank and ban culpable executives from working in the banking industry.


Do you think the relative impunity of the financial sector is also a result of how most Americans assume things are supposed to work?

Americans aspire to be rich. And they admire people who obtain riches. Sometimes that’s with a blind eye to how they became rich, how they acquired so much wealth. Take a look at the president of the United States. He has a lot of admiration from average people because he sold himself as the successful businessman who knows how to make business work, knows how to cut a deal, how to earn money.

But oftentimes people don’t think enough about how individuals get rich. Here you have this president who had Trump University — it was a fraud, and those people who signed up to learn how to do development were cheated. Thank God for the New York attorney general, who was able to get $25 million back for them, but I don’t think it was nearly enough. That’s getting rich on the backs of vulnerable people who are simply aspiring to be rich themselves — who want to be like you. I think there’s too much of that going on in this country, but I know this: People who are barely making it, people who have jobs that don’t pay a lot of money, living paycheck-paycheck and as my mother would say are “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” they are upset about the fact they’re getting ripped off. Whether it’s payday loans, the telephone company, their bank — they realize something is wrong. What they’re paying for certain services, how they’re not given correct information, how they’re tricked into paying for things they cannot afford.

Our society has a real appreciation for working hard and gaining wealth, but a certain segment of this society is getting ripped off every day. And they’re hurting. So they begin to just hate everybody.


What do you mean, everybody?

Nobody’s making life work for them, so they get mad at the elected officials. They get mad at the landlord who’s increasing the rent when the place is broken down. They get mad because they have to get a payday loan and be charged very high interest. It’s the cause of emotional distress and anger, and that’s dangerous. I think a lot of violence comes out of those feelings.


What was going on behind the scenes of “Reclaiming My Time”?

Well, here you have to know I knew who Mnuchin was. I had met with him before when low-income housing advocates were trying to extract an agreement from [IndyMac/OneWest Bank] that they would provide loans in communities where their own bad practices had caused foreclosures.

What I resented in this exchange was his attempts to butter me up the more I tried to ask him why he had not responded to my letter. I was not going to let him talk over me. He gets to make his presentation, and after that each of the members get our five minutes to ask him questions. On our time, he can’t talk forever. If we ask him a question and he starts to ramble, we will reclaim our time.

Reclaiming my time is a regular order of business. It’s not new. It’s what you do when someone is misusing your time. He was misusing my time. So I said, “Reclaiming My Time! Reclaiming My Time!” — I said it repeatedly and it went viral, and I don’t know why because it happens all the time.


After 40 years in state or federal office, why are young people responding to “Auntie Maxine”?

They do call me that, and I have wondered about it too. It took me by surprise. What I’ve been able to learn is, particularly after the election, there was a lot of disappointment among young people who had supported Bernie Sanders, but also just disappointment with the way the system works. And when they heard me take Trump on — because Trump began to exemplify what’s wrong with everything — they liked that.

He comes into the arena of politics defying everything about protocol and respectability. It’s not like I think everything needs to be like the system — a lot of things in the system need to be fixed — but he is a flawed character. He is a deplorable human being. In my estimation, despicable. I think he cares about nobody. I think he did collude with Russia and [Russian president Vladimir] Putin. What is it all his allies have in common? Russia and oil. He said he’d lift the sanctions if elected. That’s what Putin wants. Some people go around with the general theory that Putin doesn’t like our democracy. Yeah, but this is about money.

… I ask a lot of millennials what they disliked about Hillary Clinton, and they’ve said “because she’s a crook.” Her opponents made that stick. And it’s not just Trump’s campaign. The Russians played a role in this in the [social media] ads they were doing. And now we’re finding out that [Donald Trump] Jr. retweeted the Russian ads. Not only do I believe there was collusion, but obstruction of justice and violation of the Emoluments Clause. But [special counsel Robert] Mueller is on it. He’s connecting the dots. I think
he’s going to give Congress what it needs for impeachment. I think so.