Operation Choke Point Accuser Speaks Out
A Wisconsin gun shop owner successfully opened an account at his credit union, the $272 million Heritage Credit Union in Madison, Wis., only to find out a week later that he had to close it in person at a local branch.
When Mike Schuetz, owner of Hawkins Guns LLC in Hawkins, Wis., asked the branch manager for an explanation, he was told the credit union had received pressure from regulators. He recorded his conversation with the manager, who also explained the credit union did not serve businesses associated with guns and ammunition.
Schuetz is convinced the situation occurred as a result of Operation Choke Point, which the U.S. Department of Justice established to reduce fraud and reputational risk to financial institutions by pressuring them to refuse business from risky sectors.
“They told me I had to close it because I was a high-risk industry and they were not able to service me,” Schuetz told CU Times. “The local manager had a clip board from which she read off of with certain industries listed.”
Schuetz, who is also a private investigator, claimed that the document mirrored a list of high-risk merchants put out by the FDIC, which included payday lenders and gun dealers. The FDIC later removed the list from its website and said it was misinterpreted.
“The document named all of the same industries in Operation Choke Point, so if it walks like a duck and looks like a duck, it's usually a duck,” he said. “It's not about high cash flow because there are other industries on that list that are depositing much more money than I could ever dream about depositing.”
Schuetz’ business is located in the Wisconsin district represented by Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Financial Services Oversight and Investigations subcommittee. Schuetz said he brought the issue to Duffy's attention when the credit union closed his account.
“I went there to hold him accountable,” he said. “I don't want our elected officials blowing smoke. I want to make sure they are doing what they are elected to do, and so far I’m happy with how Congressman Duffy is dealing with this issue. He's taking it seriously.”
Schuetz received publicity in conservative media outlets in March when he traveled to Wash., D.C. to attend a subcommittee hearing, where FDIC Chairman Martin Gruenberg testified about the agency's role in Operation Choke Point.
Cassie Smedile, Duffy's communications director, said the congressman has spoken with Schuetz on several occasions, but that Schuetz decided to attend the hearing on his own.
Anita Rauch, president/CEO of Heritage Credit Union, refuted claims that the credit union closed Schuetz’ account due to pressure from regulators or Operation Choke Point.
“It's not that we are getting pressure from the regulator,” Rauch said. “We are required to operate under the Bank Secrecy Act regulation, and back in August, we discovered that our monitoring system needed to be kicked up a notch. We have grown $100 million in three years, and at our size, the amount of monitoring for cash intense businesses – the expectation is a little bit higher. We began working on accommodating cash intense businesses no matter what the type of business. It wasn't strictly directed at guns or gun shop owners.”
Rauch noted that many of Heritage Credit Union's employees hunt and own guns.
“For us, that's not what it's about,” she said. “It's about complying with the regulations. At the end of the day, if there's a problem at all, it's with the regulation itself.”
In response, Schuetz said the credit union is currently servicing a business in his community that deposits up to $15,000 per day depending on the time of year.
“When I have two recordings from two different managers, it kind of tells the tale,” he said.
Rauch was asked if her credit union has ever closed a member's account due to requirements from regulators or as a result of Operation Choke Point, to which she replied, “No, we have not.”
In one of Schuetz’ recordings, a regional manager attributed the closure of his account to NCUA examiners.
“They came in, looked at our books, looked at everything and said, ‘Here's some accounts we feel like we’re going to regulate you on,’ and they kind of put the screws to us on what we could and couldn't do type thing,” the manager stated in the recording. “We’re not anti-gun as a company but our hands are tied.”
According to NCUA Public Affairs Specialist John Fairbanks, the NCUA is not involved in Operation Choke Point.
Rauch explained the credit union made a mistake and was not prepared to handle Schuetz’ account.
“We should not have opened the account for Hawkins Guns because we knew we couldn't monitor any cash intense businesses,” she said. “It was quickly closed because it showed up on our audit report. At that time we were manually monitoring.”
Schuetz said the credit union's response has put his business in a negative light.
“Is she [Rauch] getting pressured to not admit that it's Operation Choke Point?” he asked. “I don't know. Would it appear to be that? Sure, it might appear to be that. I would just appreciate it if they would say, ‘We have no comment because we would like to respect the privacy of our customers’ rather than telling the whole community I’m a high cash intensive business that a $270 million credit union cannot process, therefore putting a target on my back.”
Rauch said her credit union purchased the necessary monitoring software to serve members like Schuetz in September 2014.
“Our position all along has been our inability to serve Mike at Hawkins Guns was simply a temporary situation,” she said. “It's not reasonable to think you can buy the software, plug it in and it just works. It takes a little bit of programming.”
In November 2014, Rauch said Heritage Credit Union informed Schuetz the credit union could open his account in February 2015.
“I respect his decision not to open an account with us,” she said. “I think he is probably not happy with the situation as it came about.”
Schuetz said the credit union's explanation of the situation has discouraged him from re-opening the account.
“They are not standing behind me as a customer,” he said. “It's not a place I would like to go back to. I don't feel welcome.”
Schuetz explained he is not trying to make the situation about himself or the credit union.
“I’m trying to bring attention to it for the American people so they can see what our government is doing and the avenues they are trying to infringe upon us,” he said.