Consumer Bureau to Investigate 'Fake' Rulemaking Comments
Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director now doubling as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, plans to look into the illegal submission of fake public comments during agency rulemakings.
The Wall Street Journal, in a Wednesday front-page story following a lengthy investigation, uncovered thousands of “fraudulent comments on regulatory dockets at federal agencies, some using what appear to be stolen identities posted by computers programmed to pile comments onto the dockets.”
The fake names, some from deceased individuals, were identified after the Journal and contractor Quid Inc. used analytics to isolate duplicated verbatim phrasing in comments sent to four agencies: the CFPB, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The comments dealt with such proposed rules as the FCC’s plan to undo the Obama administration’s “net neutrality” regulations and the consumer bureau’s rules cracking down on unscrupulous payday lenders. Instances of fake names or unauthorized use of names were found in comments from activists in both the anti-regulatory and pro-regulatory camps.
On Wednesday, both Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., cited the Journal's story in asking the FCC to delay Thursday's controversial vote on net neutrality, the paper reported.
“It is a federal felony to knowingly make false, fictitious or fraudulent statements to a U.S. agency,” the article noted. But “mass emailings of duplicate comments aren’t considered fraud if groups submitting them have authorization from individuals named.”
Public comments submitted to agencies via the Federal Register under the 1946 Administrative Procedures Act are the responsibility of each individual agency, though many agencies (only the consumer bureau among the four the Journal studied) participate in the centralization effort that posts rules on the website Regulations.gov, launched by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The four agencies all told the newspaper they are unable to police the use of fake names, which is not required under the Administrative Procedures Act.
Asked by Government Executive for comment, senior adviser John Czwartacki said, “Director Mulvaney is concerned about any inauthentic data that comes to the bureau. We intend to look into this matter further.”
The bureau noted that its focuses on the substance, ideas and data of the comments. It is not its practice to require commenters to submit the type of information that helps in authenticating their comments, a spokesman said. Commenters do not always provide identifying or contact information, as comments are generally publicly posted in an unedited form.