- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2014

America’s newest federal agency, charged with regulating financial institutions to prevent another hostile economic downturn, is having troubles regulating hostilities and discrimination among its own employees.

Evidence gathered by congressional investigators, internal agency documents and Washington Times interviews with workers discloses scores of cases of U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau employees seeking protection from racially offensive, sexist or discriminatory behavior, including that:

A naturalized U.S. citizen, with more than a decade of service with the U.S. government, was called an “f’ing foreigner” by management.

A department was internally dubbed “the Plantation” because of the number of blacks working in it — all supervised by white managers — without any obvious promotional track or way to get transferred.

White employees were twice as likely to get the most favorable personnel ratings in employee reviews, as were minorities.

Managers intimidated and retaliated against employees for voicing complaints or offering an alternative point of view — from denying vacation requests to hiring unqualified friends to supervise jobs and then asking subordinates to train them.

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Evidence of discriminatory pay practices in the agency’s own statistics have even resulted in promises by management of emergency pay raises for minority workers to create more parity, the documents show.

It’s not the storyline that America’s newest federal agency wanted at its inception.

CFPB, the brainchild of Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, was created by then-Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and then-Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

The latter two Democrats pushed through legislation in Congress named after them that created the agency to protect consumers from predatory banks and lending institutions blamed for the 2007-2009 financial crisis. And Ms. Warren, now considered by some as a potential presidential candidate in 2016, became its first leader.

Since then, the agency has been a political football, roundly opposed by Republicans as an excessive regulatory power play and embraced by liberals who saw it as a necessary fix to a financial system gone awry.

Manager fiefdoms

Away from the political fray on Capitol Hill, dozens of workers at the CFPB say the bureau’s lack of accountability is enabling managers to create their own minifiefdoms, stock the ranks with inexperienced and unqualified friends and retaliate against anybody who disagrees with their agenda.

The House Committee on Financial Services began airing some of the problems at hearings earlier this spring, bringing to light a situation that has simmered for months out of public view.

CFPB acknowledges its employees’ complaints about a hostile working environment and says it is working with the National Treasury Employees Union — which represents CFPB employees — to settle worker protests and iron out new performance reviews, which are at the heart of many of the protests.

The agency’s director, Richard Cordray, testified last month it has been challenging to create an agency from the ground up over the last three years, and working conditions for some have been “especially difficult.”

“I am committed to ensuring that all Bureau employees are treated fairly and that they receive the respect and dignity they deserve,” Mr. Cordray told the House Financial Services’ Oversight and Investigations subcommittee on July 30.

Still, current CFBP employees say more work needs to be done and that some thought Mr. Cordray’s testimony to be both impenitent and out of touch with what’s actually happening at the bureau.

“Anybody who asks questions or doesn’t just take orders gets discriminated against,” Ali Naraghi, a bank examiner in the CFPB’s southeast region, told The Washington Times in an interview. “What CFPB does internally to its staff is contrary to all of their objectives and the mission of the agency.”

The Naraghi case

Mr. Naraghi, a naturalized citizen of Persian descent, alleges he was called a “f’ing foreigner” by his superiors because he vocalized discrepancies in the way the CFPB was conducting its bank examinations compared with the way it was done at the Federal Reserve, where Mr. Naraghi served for 14 years.

As a bank examiner, Mr. Naraghi holds a top government position, drawing in a salary of more than $100,000. He and other examiners essentially audit private banks for compliance with federal law.

At the Federal Reserve, Mr. Naraghi earned top performance marks and promotions — winning an excellence award for mortgage servicing. At the CFPB he’s been graded at the lowest level in his performance reviews and has remained stagnant in his position since he started at the agency in 2011.

Newly in his position, Mr. Naraghi raised concerns to management that the CFPB wasn’t using a risk model — a uniform institutionalized measuring stick — to evaluate banks’ performance against one another. Because of this, he felt many examinations were skewed either in favor of what the institution dictated or to the examiner’s own preconceived notions.

What the examinations weren’t — he pointed out both to his manager and later to Congress in testimony — were objective.

“The only thing consistent within the CFPB is that it’s inconsistent,” said Mr. Naraghi, who still holds his position as he works out his complaint with the agency. “They want us to be like a private that salutes the major and does whatever they say — but everybody has something to add.”

He said he wasn’t trying to criticize the way CFPB was conducting its investigations, only voicing ways to make them better. His manager didn’t view it that way.

After being subpoenaed by the congressional committee to testify in June, the agency tried to silence Mr. Naraghi by demanding lawmakers strike or bar his opening statement. The effort failed.

In his opening testimony, Mr. Naraghi said the very employee relations office that is supposed to help aggrieved employees was “broken and is more harmful than helpful to employees who suffer discrimination or retaliation.”

Satisfaction survey higher

In response, CFPB spokeswoman Jen Howard said, on average, CFPB employees are more satisfied with their management compared with other government agencies.

According to a survey taken by CFPB and released to The Times, 72 percent of CFPB employees say they have a “high level of respect for my organization’s senior leaders,” compared to 54 percent governmentwide.

Seventy-five percent of CFPB employees either agree or strongly agree that “My supervisor/team leader is committed to a workforce representative of all segments of society,” compared with 64 percent governmentwide, the agency said.

Despite his discrimination complaint, Mr. Naraghi doesn’t question CFPB’s mission — he very much stands up for the agency and the work it is doing. He sought employment at the CFPB after listening to Ms. Warren, the agency’s first head and now a U.S. senator, describe the agency’s goals of protecting consumers when she was pushing for it as a university professor.

“My in-laws in Mississippi had been taken advantage of by a fly-by-night mortgage company,” said Mr. Naraghi. “I believe in our mission. That’s why I came. We can do a lot of good, but breaking the law to enforce the law isn’t cool in my opinion.”

Racial gaps

Part of the concern is CFPB’s treatment of minorities, women and workers over the age of 40, Mr. Naraghi and other unnamed employees said. Also, the divide between management and the bargaining unit is vast, leaving those outside the higher ranks feeling helpless and without recourse.

Last year, within the CFPB, white employees were twice as likely to receive the highest rating at the bureau as compared to black or Hispanic employees, according to the CFPB’s own performance management reviews, which were requested and made public by the union NTEU.

The odds were similarly stacked against workers over the age of 40, said Ben Konop, executive vice president at the NTEU in his May testimony to the committee.

“And ratings continued to be badly skewed in favor of management when compared with the ratings of the bargaining unit, who do the bulk of the work at the bureau,” Mr. Konop said.

In 2013 CFPB employees filed 115 official grievances through the union — a particularly high amount for an agency with only 1,300 employees.

Complaints range from managers denying vacation requests in retaliation for comments they don’t like to dismissing internal requests for promotions and hiring unqualified friends instead who then needed training and supervision from those in lesser positions, according to current employees.

Some of these complaints were addressed by management at CFPB’s “All Hands” spring meeting — an agencywide conference that is used for training and team building.

In a presentation obtained from the conference by The Times, internal management laid bare the discrepancies in pay and performance between minorities and their white counterparts and committed to compensate employees for the difference.

“In the absence of a definitive root cause, we have decided to compensate employees to remediate statistical disparities caused by our prior performance management system and to bargain with NTEU to change it going forward,” the presentation said.

Union involvement

The NTEU, for its part, will continue its effort to uncover and eliminate any unfair treatment at the bureau, NTEU National President Colleen M. Kelley said in a statement to The Times.

“Since NTEU began representing CFPB employees, we raised and pressed management on addressing employee concerns about disparate treatment and other workplace issues through collective bargaining and the grievance process,” Ms. Kelley said.

Last month, improvements were made in the agency’s telework policy, employee relocation policy and career ladder positions, Ms. Kelley said. The agency has also agreed to move away from its current performance system and form a task force that will focus on redesigning it, she said.

Agency employees say the pay increases are just restitution, but because almost everyone got bonuses and promotions, it just raised the playing field instead of equalizing it.

In addition, high-level employees — such as examiners with pay grades above a certain threshold — were exempt from the pay increases. In terms of the redesigned performance reviews, the true test will be in the coming months and years, employees said.

What angers them the most, however, is the fact that many managers who have a history of employee complaints and discrimination are still holding their jobs and, in some cases, intimidating others not to come forward, according to multiple employees, some of whom only spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Authoritarian style

Angela Martin, a senior CFPB enforcement attorney, accused a supervisor of retaliating against her after she filed a workers complaint with human resources.

Mrs. Martin alleges her supervisor threatened to bring counterclaims against her if she went forward with her complaint, then isolated her, diminished her job duties and held her accountable for work while preventing her from being involved in the preparation of that work.

Mrs. Martin — who solidly believes in the agency’s mission — was a former private practice attorney and Army veteran who specialized in representing military families in consumer fraud cases.

“Employees have told me of alarming stories of maltreatment that resulted when they opposed the mismanagement and when they asserted their individual rights,” Mrs. Martin, a mother of five, told Congress in April. “Certain managers have adopted an authoritarian, untouchable, unaccountable and unanswerable management style.”

An external audit done at the request of the bureau agreed with Mrs. Martin’s claims, and the CFPB settled with her this summer. She currently holds a new position at the agency and no longer interacts with her former supervisor.

However, CFPB launched a new investigation into Mrs. Martin’s claims — hiring yet another independent third-party examiner last month — to re-examine her case. The new probe has had a chilling effect on those thinking about coming forward with their own grievances, employees said.

‘The Plantation’

It was Mrs. Martin who first made the claims of the department’s so-called “Plantation” where black employees were sent with no clear course of promotions or career track. Formally, the department is called the Office of Consumer Response Intake Section.

“There is an entire section in Consumer Response Intake that is 100 percent African-American, even the contractors, and it is called ‘The Plantation,’” Mrs. Martin testified. “And people tell me it’s very hard to leave The Plantation. You must be extremely savvy, or you must [have] somebody else [help you] to get out. And I will note, you cannot say education is a factor, because there are licensed attorneys and [people with] advanced master’s degrees working there.”

Jen Howard, a spokeswoman at CFPB, says Mrs. Martin’s claims contained inaccurate information.

“There have been over 50 promotions within the Intake Section, and over 90 percent of the employees in the section who have received at least one promotion are minorities,” said Ms. Howard in a written response.

“Three employees in the section have been promoted to supervisory roles outside of the section but within Consumer Response, all of whom are African-American. Four employees in the section have been promoted from ‘Intake Specialist’ to ‘Intake Team Lead,’ all of whom are African-American,” she said.

Nonetheless, the accusations are so serious and widespread that the Government Accountability Office announced this month that it will begin an investigation into CFPB’s organizational culture and management practices.

The investigation was requested by Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the House Financial Services Oversight and Accountability Subcommittee, which held the hearings; by Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican; and Consumer Subcommittee Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican.

Since hearings began in April, Mr. McHenry said his office has heard from more than 32 employees complaining about maltreatment at the agency.

“The treatment of women and minorities at the CFPB is deplorable,” Mr. McHenry said in a statement to The Times. “Unfortunately, due to the unique structure of the bureau — leaving it free from both congressional and executive branch oversight — there is little that can be done to stop these rogue agency leaders.

“While my subcommittee will continue its oversight efforts, ultimately it is Director Cordray’s responsibility to realize the depth of these issues and finally address the suffering of so many CFPB employees,” he said.

For now, Mr. Naraghi, and the many more like him who came forward anonymously, are both negotiating their cases with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and trying to navigate the tricky management system to steer clear of retaliation.

Some employees interviewed by The Times have since left the agency, giving up hope of any major institutional change in the near future.

CFPB management “tried to sully my record — they wanted me to sign a settlement with them and clear them of any wrongdoing. I’m not going to do that,” said Mr. Naraghi, who is waiting on a hearing date for his grievance case. “What’s right is right. I don’t want to bring down the CFPB, but I do have a serious problem with its management.”

• Kelly Riddell can be reached at kriddell@washingtontimes.com.

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