Consumer Bureau Faulted on Auto Lending Inquiry

Representative Jeb Hensarling, Republican of Texas, is a longtime critic of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

A congressional report criticizing a 2013 settlement by Ally Financial over discriminatory auto lending practices could give more ammunition to lawmakers trying to abolish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The report, issued on Tuesday by Republican members of the House Financial Services Committee, called the fledgling agency’s methodology for determining discrimination “junk science” and said the bureau went after Ally because it knew the lender would settle quickly to avoid problems getting government approval on its restructuring.

In a statement, the chairman of the committee, Representative Jeb Hensarling, Republican of Texas and a longtime critic of the consumer agency, called the settlement a “shakedown.”

“The C.F.P.B. is a dangerously out-of-control agency,” he said.

It is another salvo in a four-year war by Republicans against the agency, which was created as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial overhaul and was championed by Elizabeth Warren, then a special adviser to the Obama administration and now a Democrat senator from Massachusetts.

Since its beginning, the agency has focused on practices in credit card lending, for-profit colleges, credit reporting, mortgage servicing and debt collection, among other issues.

In a statement on Wednesday, a bureau spokeswoman said the report showed that the agency engaged in careful deliberation.

“We develop our methodologies through rigorous internal analysis and dialogue that considers and synthesizes all points of view,” she said, adding that the methodologies evolve over time. “The bottom line is that multiple methodologies found that minority Ally borrowers were being charged higher rates than white borrowers without regard to credit. Everyone should agree that it is unacceptable.”

Republicans have taken aim at the agency since its formation, saying it lacks accountability and steps outside its mandate. The report questioned the agency’s authority to enforce equal credit laws against vehicle finance companies. The agency oversees lenders but not auto dealers.

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Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

Some Republican lawmakers have tried to put amendments into the highway legislation that would clip the bureau’s wings, but without success.

Last week, the House passed a bill with bipartisan support that would revoke the guidance to auto lenders, which said lenders should limit or eliminate dealerships’ ability to adjust their margin on loans they arrange.

During the summer, Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and candidate for president, introduced a bill calling for the abolition of the consumer agency.

In the 2013 settlement, Ally, formerly known as GMAC, agreed to pay $80 million to minority borrowers and $18 million in penalties without admitting wrongdoing after the consumer bureau and the Justice Department said more than 235,000 minority borrowers paid higher rates for auto loans because of a discriminatory pricing system.

It was the government’s largest case involving allegations of discrimination in auto lending. In July, American Honda agreed to pay $24 million to borrowers to settle its case. In September, Fifth Third Bank settled for $18 million. Neither admitted wrongdoing.

The House committee’s report details behind-the-scenes communications among consumer bureau staff members that acknowledged that their methodology for determining discrimination was “less accurate” and “inferior” to others. Still, they pressed ahead with the case against Ally, knowing, the committee report said, that it was under pressure to get federal approvals for its restructuring.

An unnamed lender, in contrast, settled quietly with the bureau in early 2014 and put aside a $22 million remuneration fund, avoiding an enforcement action and publicity, the report said.

The bureau spokeswoman rejected the suggestion that Ally was an easy target. She noted that Ally’s status as a holding company was up to the Federal Reserve Board, not the bureau.

“The C.F.P.B., the Department of Justice, and Ally all had an interest in addressing these legal violations expeditiously and worked hard together to do so,” she said.

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