As payday lenders from across America converge on Miami this week for the industry's annual conference, they'll be greeted at the airport by signs protesting their arrival.
"Keep your purse close," one ad in baggage claim warns. "The payday lending conference is in town."
Troublingly, this year's conference is being held at Trump National Doral Miami, where events began Tuesday night and will continue through Thursday.
The timing is no coincidence. The Community Financial Services Association of America, a group that represents and lobbies on behalf of payday loan companies, booked the venue last year at a time it was actively seeking allies in Washington to undo tough new regulations on the industry. The Associated Press included the conference in a February story showing numerous examples of special-interest groups booking events at venues owned by President Donald Trump, giving the appearance of pay-for-play.
Protestors from a variety of faith-based organizations picketed outside the president's Doral golf club and resort Tuesday with signs calling for Trump and other political leaders to "Stop the debt trap." Rev. Sekinah Hamlin, a North Carolina-based pastor and director of the Center for Responsible Lending, says the choice of conference venue is an obvious ploy to curry favor with the president.
"We believe it's a conflict of interest," says Hamlin, who was one of the dozen-plus protesters. "This administration has business before it that is of key concern to payday lenders, and the payday lenders are taking
Critics say the payday lending industry, which doles out high-interest, short-term loans, preys upon the financial desperation of poor Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck with no means to repay the debt.
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In recent years, the industry's most powerful watchdog has been the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a government agency established in 2010 and targeted by Republican lawmakers such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio ever since. But last November, Trump appointed White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney — who as a member of Congress took tens of thousands of dollars from the industry — as acting director of the agency.
And in a relatively short amount of time, Mulvaney has already done several favors for the payday lending industry. Under his watch, the bureau has stalled a rule that would have required lenders to make sure their customers could actually repay the loans. Mulvaney also made the decision not to pursue a lawsuit against a Kansas-based payday loan collector and referred to his own agency in a memo as "far too powerful."
Outside Trump's Doral resort Tuesday, Hamlin says she thought of the awful stories she'd heard from people trapped in a cycle of debt by high-interest loans.
"I thought it was so interesting while I was out in the line with my signs... that the payday lenders were playing golf and probably eating food that's much better than those families, and it was off-putting," she says. "One thing I know is people don't go where they are not welcome. It's very clear the payday lenders feel very welcome at Trump's resort."