How Payday Lenders Spent $1 Million at a Trump Resort and Cashed In

How Payday Lenders Spent $1 Million at a Trump Resort and Cashed In

At the Trump Doral outside Miami, payday lenders celebrated the potential death of a rule intended to protect their customers. They couldn’t have done it without President Donald Trump and his latest deregulator, Kathleen Kraninger.

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In mid-March, the payday lending industry held its annual convention at the Trump National Doral hotel outside Miami. Payday lenders offer loans on the order of a few hundred dollars, typically to low-income borrowers, who have to pay them back in a matter of weeks. The industry has long been reviled by critics for charging stratospheric interest rates – typically 400% on an annual basis – that leave customers trapped in cycles of debt.

The industry had felt under siege during the Obama administration, as the federal government moved to clamp down. A government study found that a majority of payday loans are made to people who pay more in interest and fees than they initially borrow. Google and Facebook refuse to take the industry’s ads.

On the edge of the Doral’s grounds, as the payday convention began, a group of ministers held a protest pray-in, denouncing the lenders for having a feast while their borrowers suffer and starve.

But inside the hotel, in a wood-paneled bar under golden chandeliers, the mood was celebratory. Payday lenders, many dressed in golf shirts and khakis, enjoyed an open bar and mingled over bites of steak and coconut shrimp.

They had plenty to be elated about. A month earlier, Kathleen Kraninger, who had just finished her second month as director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, had delivered what the lenders consider an epochal victory: Kraninger announced a proposal to gut a crucial rule that had been passed under her Obama-era predecessor.

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Payday lenders viewed that rule as a potential death sentence for many in their industry. It would require payday lenders and others to make sure borrowers could afford to pay back their loans while also covering basic living expenses. Banks and mortgage lenders view such a step as a basic prerequisite. But the notion struck terror in the payday lenders. Their business model relies on customers – 12 million Americans take out payday loans every year, according to Pew Charitable Trusts – getting stuck in a long-term cycle of debt, experts say. A CFPB study found that three out of four payday loans go to borrowers who take out 10 or more loans a year.

Now, the industry was taking credit for the CFPB’s retreat. As salespeople, executives and vendors picked up lanyards and programs at the registration desk by the Doral’s lobby, they saw a message on the first page of the program from Dennis Shaul, CEO of the industry’s trade group, the Community Financial Services Association of America, which was hosting the convention. We should not forget that we have had some good fortune through recent regulatory and legal developments, Shaul wrote. These events did not occur by accident, but rather are due in large part to the unity and participation of CFSA members and a commitment to fight back against regulatory overreach by the CFPB.

This year was the second in a row that the CFSA held its convention at the Doral. In the eight years before 2018 (the extent for which records could be found), the organization never held an event at a Trump property.

Asked whether the choice of venue had anything to do with the fact that its owner is president of the United States and the man who appointed Kraninger as his organization’s chief regulator, Shaul assured ProPublica and WNYC that the answer was no. We returned because the venue is popular with our members and meets our needs, he said in a written statement. The statement noted that the CFSA held its first annual convention at the Doral hotel more than 16 years ago. Trump didn’t own the property at the time.

The CFSA and its members have poured a total of about $1 million into the Trump Organization’s coffers through the two annual conferences, according to detailed estimates prepared by a corporate event planner in Miami and an executive at a competing hotel that books similar events. Those estimates are consistent with the CFSA’s most recent available tax filing, which reveals that it spent $644,656 on its annual conference the year before the first gathering at the Trump property. (The Doral and the CFSA declined to comment.)

A group of pastors protested in front of the Trump Doral hotel on the first day of a payday lending group’s annual conference. (Anjali Tsui/ProPublica)

It’s a way of keeping themselves on the list, reminding the president and the people close to him that they are among those who are generous to him with the profits that they earn from a business that’s in severe danger of regulation unless the Trump administration acts, said Lisa Donner, executive director of consumer group Americans for Financial Reform.

The money the CFSA spent at the Doral is only part of the ante to lobby during the Trump administration. The payday lenders also did a bevy of things that interest groups have always done: They contributed to the president’s inauguration and earned face time with the president after donating to a Trump ally.

But it’s the payment to the president’s business that is a stark reminder that the Trump administration is like none before it. If the industry had written a $1 million check directly to the president’s campaign, both the CFSA and campaign could have faced fines or even criminal charges – and Trump couldn’t have used the money to enrich himself. But paying $1 million directly to the president’s business? That’s perfectly legal.

The inauguration of Donald Trump was a watershed for the payday lending industry. It had been feeling beleaguered since the launch of the CFPB in 2011. For the first time, the industry had come under federal supervision. Payday lending companies were suddenly subject to exams conducted by the bureau’s supervision division, which could, and sometimes did, lead to enforcement cases.

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