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By: Mark Barrett, Asheville Citizen-Times, 10/23/15

A Washington-based watchdog group is asking for an ethics probe of 10th District U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry and 10 other congressmen because their actions to help the payday lending industry coincided with campaign contributions from the industry.

McHenry, a Lincoln County Republican, got $55,399 in contributions from industry political action committees or executives around the time he co-signed a 2011 bill that critics say would have hampered the operations of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, says the complaint from Campaign for Accountability.

The industry gave McHenry’s campaign another $15,300 just before and after he signed an August 2013 letter to federal officials asking that they stop a controversial effort to dissuade banks from doing businesses with companies the government deemed more likely to be involved in fraudulent financial transactions, including payday lenders, the complaint says.

The Oct. 5 complaint offers no evidence that McHenry took either action at the request of payday lenders other than the timing of the donations.

That’s information that could come to light if the Office of Congressional Ethics investigates the McHenry contributions and those to the other 10 House members, said Daniel Stevens, a spokesman for Campaign for Accountability.

“So much money came in right around the time of these actions,” he said. “It raises red flags.”

McHenry spokesman Jeff Butler said in a statement that McHenry did not act based on the prospect of getting contributions.

“While Congressman McHenry is thankful for the support he receives, his legislative activities are dictated by his beliefs, not the interests of any particular group or individual,” Butler said.

Progressive groups have pushed for more regulation of payday lenders, arguing that the large fees and heavy interest rates many charge are an excessive burden on their clients. Conservatives say the companies help people who need cash for unexpected expenses.

McHenry, vice chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, has been a critic of the CFPB and of more government regulation of the financial industry in general. His campaign committee got $1.3 million in contributions from all sources in 2011 and 2012 and $1.7 million in 2013 and 2014, although about 40 percent of contributions for the latter election cycle went unspent.

Campaign for Accountability was formed earlier this year. Stevens says it is “100 percent nonpartisan” and noted that two of the other 10 congressmen its complaint targets are Democrats.

The organization is headed by a former official with a progressive group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, that uses lawsuits, requests for investigations and similar tactics to push progressive causes.

The 2011 bill McHenry co-sponsored would have switched authority over the CFPB from a single director to five, a step conservatives said was needed as a check on unreasonable regulation but opponents said would have hamstrung the bureau’s operations.

The 2013 letter called for the Department of Justice and FDIC to suspend Operation Choke Point, an effort to keep businesses with a record of fraud or high risk for banks out of payment systems by pressing banks not to serve them. Critics said the effort unfairly targeted legal businesses. It drew sustained criticism from conservative groups and was eventually shut down.