Accountability Isn't a One-Way Street
As I write this, the NCUA is wrapping up its annual employee training conference in Orlando.
How much of the operating budget was earmarked for the event?
Heck if I know.
I’ve been asking that question for two weeks and have received a variety of responses. Unfortunately, none of those included the budget.
Here's the thing about journalists: We’re suspicious people. If you repeatedly reply to questions with everything but an answer, the question will change.
In my case, I started to wonder if such a budget even exists.
What started out as a low-priority story about the NCUA continuing to lower costs for its training conference escalated into a potential blockbuster about accounting mismanagement.
I repeated the question several times: Did the NCUA prepare a budget for its 2014 annual training conference?
But rather than provide a simple yes or no answer, or a reasonable explanation as to why the budget wasn't available, the NCUA took the situation from bad to worse.
“You will get it, but I cannot pledge to meet a deadline you have set,” my press contact said.
Just imagine, credit union executives, if you were that flip when the NCUA asked you for information.
Like, say, a requirement to submit your 5300 report by a certain deadline.
A deadline you did not set.
Overall, the NCUA isn't the worst agency when it comes to transparency.
When I really need information, all three board members and their staffers are more than willing to answer any question, or at least respectfully explain why they can't.
But in life, you have to pick your battles. I can't always play that card.
Why does it have to be so hard?
Why don't federal agencies understand they exist to serve the public, not the other way around?
For us, the worst offender in Washington is the CFPB.
You’d think such a liberal agency would respect the “by the people, for the people” principle.
The CFPB invited CU Times to an April 24 forum, in which it revealed a pilot program to evaluate ways to digitize the mortgage closing process.
The forum featured a credit union panelist, and we were excited to cover it.
Washington Reporter Nick Ballasy arrived at the forum prepared with questions about the initiative, as well as questions about a recent proposal to alter the Qualified Mortgage rule.
But the CFPB wouldn't allow any questions. Audience members were provided with microphones, but were told they could only make comments.
Apparently, the CFPB thinks a forum is a one-way conversation.
After the event, Nick asked the credit union panelist some follow-up questions about her credit union's e-signature program.
He then asked about the CFPB's proposal to change its QM fee structure, and how that might help her credit union.
And that's when things got even worse.
The credit union executive said she had heard about the proposal, but didn't know the details. So, she introduced Nick to a CFPB mortgage specialist, who she said knew more about it.
The man started explaining the proposal to Nick, but quickly stopped and asked if he was press.
“I’m not authorized to speak to the media,” he said, eyes darting nervously around the room.
At that point, CFPB Press Assistant Walter Suskind physically stepped between Nick and the CFPB employee and told Nick he wasn't allowed to ask any questions.
Nick replied that the story had already been made public and the questions were fair game.
Suskind disagreed, saying any questions must be submitted to the CFPB press office.
That sounds reasonable, except in our experience, the CFPB's press office makes the NCUA's look like an open book.
And that wasn't the end of it. Suskind followed Nick as he left the CFPB building. When Nick caught him in the act, he did an excellent Maxwell Smart impersonation that would have been funny, had it happened somewhere else besides the United States of America.
And that's my point.
As government agencies increase their authority over the public and entities they regulate, they’re also displaying increased contempt toward those who expect accountability in return.
That's not just bad for CU Times.
That's bad for the public, and it doesn't bode well for the future of our country.
Heather Anderson is executive editor of CU Times. She can be reached at 202-370-4822 or firstname.lastname@example.org.