Department of Justice

Goodbye and Good Riddance to Operation Choke Point

The Department of Justice says it's shutting down the dragnet program that targeted porn makers, payday lenders, gun shops, and other small businesses.


Michael Weber imageBROKER/Newscom

A financial dragnet that ensnared porn stars, gun dealers, payday lenders, and other politically disfavored small businesses has been shut down.

Operation Choke Point launched in 2012 as a joint effort between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. (The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would later get involved too.) It was supposed to be a crackdown on online payday lenders making loans into states where high-interest lending is illegal. It quickly morphed into a questionably constitutional attack on a wide range of entrepreneurs who found their assets frozen or their bank accounts closed because they were considered "high-risk" for fraud.

In a letter to Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd called Operation Choke Point "a misguided initiative" and confirmed that DOJ was closing those investigations, Politico reported late Thursday night.

"Law abiding businesses should not be targeted simply for operating in an industry that a particular administration might disfavor," Boyd wrote. "All of the Department's bank investigations conducted as part of Operation Chokepoint are now over, the initiative is no longer in effect, and it will not be undertaken again."

If anything, Boyd is understating the degree to which Operation Choke Point was unlawful and just plain creepy.

The repudiation of Operation Choke Point is a welcome development, says Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

"It should serve as a warning that the government doesn't get to flag for banks—or businesses generally—which legal-but-suspect domestic customers it would like them to ostracize," Olson told Reason on Friday. "Those in power must refrain from signaling that they'd be pleased if certain categories of otherwise legal customer get cut off from their access to economic life."

Operation Choke Point began as an extension of the Obama administration's Financial Fraud Task Force, but the dragnet investigation was never given proper statutory authority by either the administration or Congress. In fact, details about Operation Choke Point were deliberately withheld from Congress at first, a fact The Wall Street Journal uncovered in 2013.

By labeling certain industries as being at a high risk for fraud, the feds were able to increase oversight requirements for some accounts to such a high level that it became unprofitable for banks to work with certain clients, explained Iain Murray, the Competitive Enterprise Institute's vice president of strategy, in a 2014 post at National Review Online.

As Murray pointed out, the Obama administration's own guidance document for the program included a list of industries targeted with greater scrutiny, including payday loans, credit repair services, fireworks, firearms, ammunition, "As Seen on TV" products, gambling, home-based charities, pornography, online pharmaceuticals, and sweepstakes. Targets of Operation Choke Point—such as porn star Teagan Presley, who was profiled by Vice News in 2014—often didn't have any idea why their bank accounts were being frozen or closed.

"The very premise is clearly chilling—the DOJ is coercing private businesses in an attempt to centrally engineer the American marketplace based on it's own politically biased moral judgment," wrote Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown in 2014.

Republicans have criticized Operation Choke Point for years. An ongoing congressional effort to reform the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau included a provision that would have reined in the operation.

There's no compelling reason for the government to stop individuals from engaging in the free exchange of goods and services based on nothing more concrete than the suspicion that some of those exchanges could be tainted by fraud. Operation Choke Point was a wide-ranging, illegal investigation that chose its targets for reasons grounded in little more than than officials' own sense of morality, and it's closure is a clear win for liberty.

Now, if only we could get DOJ to apply such level-headed, clear-eyed analysis to civil asset forfeiture.

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  1. I’ve noticed shitty DOJ policy usually names/blames the head honcho(s). Not so for good DOJ policy? Trump/Sessions are fuckwits, but are probably responsible for this welcome change. Give credit where credit is due.

    1. True that, I have updated my Sessions scoreboard.

      Good Sessions 1
      Evil Sessions 99

      Hopefully this will be the greatest comeback since the Oilers vs Bills in 1993.

      1. If only Sessions would do his job correctly and focus on putting democrats in prison.

  2. Is this the first bit of good news to come out of the DOJ since Sessions took over?

    1. He won’t get credit for it.

      Old guy elf is linked to Trump and there is too much TDS here.

  3. What the hell does this have to do with Nazis?

    1. Nazis have bank accounts. That makes every bank suspect.

    2. Nazis do that force-choke salute thing.

  4. Truly the terrorists have won now that the international sex-trafficking cartel is free to waltz right into a bank and get a loan for a fleet of white panel trucks without so much as an eyebrow being raised.

    1. And guns, of course they are going to buy guns.

    2. And with an eclipse on Monday. Hide your womenfolk in the cellar.

      1. I do that every Monday already, but good looking out.

    3. White panel trucks?

      1. White panel trucks need to check their privilege.

  5. It’s interesting how some presidents can be halfway decent with some policies and completely shite with others, while a succeeding administration will be the opposite. The cynic in me says that someone connected to Obama was benefiting from Operation Chokepoint while someone connected to Trump was getting it in the ass.

  6. So while Trump himself is a bigger PR disaster than even the Hillaryites expected, his appointees mostly do far more good than Bush or Obama did or Hillary would have. It’s a low bar, but I think six months of this administration has done more good, and less harm, than teh 16 years beforehand.

    1. I don’t know why Trump tweets what he does but much of the PR stuff is media twisting the ridiculous shit he sometimes says into evil motives.

      Why people believe what the media says at all is amazing to me.

      Trump’s appointees have done a few good things in 6 months, so imagine how popular Trump would be if RINOs would repeal Obamacare and reform the tax code.

      1. It would sharpen the political divide tremendously, and set back socialism quite a bit, at least for a few years. I’d love if it had happened by now, so there’d be 3/7 years of it working to really mess with the proggies.

        Just as expanding XXW and open carry has refuted the nonsense of blood in the streets specifically and gun control more generally, except of course to the true hoplophobes.

  7. The problem with this remedy is president Warren can bring Operation Choke Point right back whenever she feels like it. A court ruling would’ve prevented any more such shenanigans, or at least given you a prayer of winning if you sued.

  8. Operation Chokepoint was my…

  9. Just wait until we’re all forcibly chipped. Then it will be even easier to choke us off for political reasons.

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