Credit union overseer cozies up to industry execs

Rick Metsger says government, industry are 'both regulators'

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A credit union regulator whose close ties to industry lobbyists sparked an internal agency probe  said Tuesday that his job is “very similar” to serving on the board of a credit union and that regulators must recognize credit unions’ need to take financial risks.

“In reality we — you and I — are both regulators,” Rick Metsger told an annual meeting convened by the industry’s biggest trade group, the Credit Union National Association, to gather supporters seeking to influence lawmakers.

Metsger is on the three-person board of the National Credit Union Administration, the agency tasked with overseeing the nation’s credit unions and preventing another bailout of the industry. The agency used $19 billion in taxpayer dollars to prop up the industry after the 2008 financial crisis revealed major gaps in oversight and catastrophic investment decisions by credit unions.

The Center for Public Integrity reported in December that Metsger relied on financial support from credit unions over more than a decade in the Oregon state Senate and pushed pro-industry policies while in office. He worked as a paid consultant for credit unions and their lobbyists intermittently until the month he joined the National Credit Union Administration board.

Metsger’s close ties to lobbyists and executives are typical of the regulators, lawyers and lobbyists who circulate easily between roles leading the credit union industry, the Center reported.

The Credit Union National Association is the industry’s main voice in Washington, loudly opposing policies that some regulators believe would reduce the risk of credit union failures. The group wants to slash the regulator’s budget, which would its ability to improve examination and supervision of credit unions. The Credit Union National Association’s  “Government Affairs Conference” in Washington, D.C., draws more than 4,000 attendees and speakers including key lawmakers who work on credit union issues.

Metsger said Tuesday that he attended the conference “six or seven times” as a credit union representative, “sitting in the same chairs you are sitting in now,” according to prepared remarks. Noting that two former credit union colleagues were in the audience, he called on for Congress to “modernize” laws affecting credit unions. National Credit Union Administration board members have asked Congress to roll back limits on credit unions’ commercial lending and permit other activities currently prohibited because of the financial risks involved.

“I am also mindful that credit unions must not be so constrained by their regulator, or so risk-averse that they cannot meet the financial needs of their members,” Metsger assured the gathering.

He added that credit unions should assess their performance based on their service to consumers.

As the Center detailed in December, Metsger walked directly from his swearing-in ceremony in August to a party thrown by the Oregon lobbyists who had supported his political career. Agency ethics lawyers approved the event, and Metsger paid for his own meal.

The National Credit Union Administration’s inspector general — an independent, internal watchdog office — said after the Center’s inquiries that it would review the lawyers’ advice to Metsger and the agency’s earlier analysis of any potential financial conflicts. It would also launch a formal investigation if the facts warranted one, the inspector general’s office said.

Credit unions are bank-like companies that provide financial services for consumers. They were created during the Great Depression to help poor people, but their mission has drifted over the years because of changes by regulators and lawmakers.

The industry has swelled to 96 million U.S. members and holds more than $1 trillion in assets, but remains exempt from most taxes. The break is expected to cost taxpayers $1.66 billion this year.