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There’s a new consumer group in town with some mysterious origins. The Consumers Rights League was formed just last month to champion “consumer choice in the marketplace” and beat back proposed bankruptcy, mortgage, and payday loan regulations. “It seems that most of the consumer advocacy groups are just lobbying for increased regulations,” says director Terry Kibbe, a former vice president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “There’s no voice out there saying consumers are smart people — they’re best served by making their own choices.” But there’s another way to describe the group’s mission: pushback. The Consumers Rights League has adopted the same initials as the Center for Responsible Lending, the nonprofit that has long argued that insufficiently regulated lending, whether in payday advances or interest-only mortgages, hurts the poor. Now that the economy is in the throes of a credit crisis, the center is prodding Congress to tighten lending regulations for banks, securities dealers, mortgage brokers, and short-term lenders. The backers of the Consumers Rights League, who have left few clues to their identity around town, are trying to ensure that doesn’t happen. The league intends to raise between $1 million and $5 million in seed money and has hired public relations firm CRC Public Relations and lobbyists Jason Roe and Mike McKay at Federal Strategy Group. That lobbying firm is already making an anti-regulation case to members of the House Financial Services Committee, and Kibbe says it is “within the realm of possibility” that the lobbyists have been trying to convince major lenders to join up. The group’s Hill outreach has already scored a victory: Last month, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) cited the Consumers Rights League’s work in requesting a review of possible mortgage market manipulation by the Center for Responsible Lending. The Consumers Rights League isn’t solely devoted to attacking the Center for Responsible Lending, its director says, though it’s already sniped heavily at the nonprofit. A report published on the Consumers Rights League Web site excoriates the Center for Responsible Lending’s backer, Self-Help, as “a wealthy financial institution that profits from the policies it advocates” and accuses it of paternalism and predatory lending. (Kibbe’s group plays rough: The report prominently cites a years-old — and wholly debunked — allegation that Self-Help’s directors took out personal loans from the credit union.) FEW TRACES But no one seems to want to take credit for all this work. Kibbe declined to identify the group’s original backers, though she says they were very limited in number and financially unconnected to the payday and mortgage industries. And despite its planned multimillion-dollar footprint, the Consumers Rights League seems to have intentionally left few traces. Its Web site is registered to a proxy domain provider in Scottsdale, Ariz. There’s no sign of it in incorporation databases maintained by the Internal Revenue Service or District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and it’s not a registered client of the Federal Strategy Group. Perhaps most strikingly, the industries that have the most to gain from its advocacy claim they’re in the dark: Lobbyists and trade associations representing the banking, mortgage, and payday lending industries say they’re familiar with Kibbe’s group only through its initial report on the Center for Responsible Lending. “We e-mailed them when they did that report and everything saying, �Great, we’re going to blog it,’ but they’re not tied to the [payday] industry,” says Steve Schlein of Dezenhall Communications, which represents the payday lending trade group, the Community Financial Services Association. (The industry announced its own $10-million defense fund last year.) “From what I read, they look like they’re a research group,” says Wright Andrews of Butera & Andrews, who’s a lead lobbyist for the subprime mortgage industry and payday lenders. Whatever the group’s origins, it has already amassed some impressive conservative connections. Its communications shop, CRC Public Relations, is headed by Greg Mueller, Steve Forbes’ former campaign spokesman. Kibbe runs the organization out of space borrowed from Richard Armey’s Freedom Works, where her husband, Matt Kibbe, is the director and Forbes is on the board. It’s also clear that it’s done a very good job getting under the Center for Responsible Lending’s skin. Two days after Kibbe’s group formed, the Center for Responsible Lending denounced their detractors as a front for the payday lenders whose attacks on Self-Help put them in the same company as drug dealers and the Ku Klux Klan. (The charge delighted Kibbe, who believes the center overplayed its hand.) Kathleen Day, a spokeswoman for the Center for Responsible Lending, says the organization is convinced that, despite Kibbe’s and the industry’s denials, the Consumers Rights League is a front for payday lenders. “We know it’s not a consumer group,” Day says. “You can dress it up however you like, it’s still a pig.” According to Kibbe, the current panic over the economy forced her group to come to the aid of the politically vulnerable: the payday and subprime industries. Groups like the Center for Responsible Lending and their allies in Congress “are trying to take away a choice that I think a lot of consumers need,” she says.
Jeff Horwitz can be contacted at [email protected].

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