- The Washington Times - Monday, October 26, 2009

For more than a decade, the rent-to-own industry has watched as 20 separate pieces of federal legislation it supported failed in Congress. After years of frustration, it decided to assert itself more aggressively.

Already a major political donor, the $6.3 billion-a-year industry paid lobbyists to “put a human face” on its case and looked for new ways to sow good will with key Democratic lawmakers, who were wary of an industry that rents equipment such as televisions, appliances, computers, furniture and refrigerators to people — often low-income consumers — with the option to buy them later.

For instance, the Association of Progressive Rental Organizations (APRO) invited Rep. William Lacy Clay of Missouri to be keynote speaker at its annual conference last year in St. Louis and arranged for executives to donate $14,000 to Mr. Clay’s personal charity so they could participate in his annual golf tournament that raises money for student scholarships.

Industry officials have routed an additional $21,000 in political donations since 2006 to Mr. Clay’s re-election campaign, Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show. On the Senate side, they directed nearly $61,000 in donations over three years to Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat.

The industry’s optimism has grown with its political investment.

Mr. Clay has secured 109 co-sponsors in the House for federal legislation he introduced in March that would immunize the industry from stronger consumer-protection laws at the state level, including provisions that would force the industry to comply with state usury ceilings or interest-rate disclosure laws, such as the Truth In Lending Act.

Industry officials have convinced 46 states to enact legislation that treats rent-to-own transactions as a lease, although several states insist on treating rent-to-own sales as small loans, requiring compliance with usury ceilings, annual percentage-rate disclosures, and other consumer-protection provisions.

Mrs. Landrieu has secured 15 co-sponsors for identical legislation she also introduced in March.

APRO, which calls itself the “official voice” of the rent-to-own industry, is “more optimistic about passage this year than ever before,” the group’s executive director, Bill Keese, told The Washington Times.

“There are more co-sponsors at this juncture than ever before, decision makers have a more complete understanding of the issue, and the two committees of jurisdiction are more focused on considering responsible regulations than in the past,” he said.

In April, hundreds of APRO leaders, corporate managers and store-level associates came to Washington to meet with congressional staff members and assist with “multiple community outreach initiatives” aimed at passing the pending bills.

But where the industry lobby sees success, consumer-protection advocates and ethics watchdogs see a corrupting “pay-to-play” system that uses political money to buy access and influence.

It is a system Democrats vowed to end when they took over Congress in 2007, but which has, in the minds of ethics specialists, persisted with little change.

“It’s shocking that Rep. Clay’s foundation would accept contributions from industry leaders whose legislation he is championing,” said Naomi Seligman, deputy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

“Joining the likes of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and now-jailed former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Rep. Clay is now part of a club of public officials who sell their access for cash. Congratulations.”

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