A website devoted to highly charged allegations against the credit union industry was operated by the American Bankers Association, although the ABA’s involvement was cloaked in secrecy.
For more than a year, “explorecreditunions.com” was registered using a proxy that hid the website’s ownership. And the website did not identify the trade group as the source for the content.
However, a search Tuesday morning on register.com, one of many sites that catalogs website ownership, no longer listed the proxy, but identified the owner as the ABA. And an ABA technical information employee was listed as the website’s contact person.
Shortly after CU Times asked the ABA about its ownership of the website, it was taken down, but the site’s Facebook page and Twitter feed remain online. The Facebook page identifies the site as a “news and media” page. By comparison, the ABA’s Facebook page identifies it as a “nonprofit organization-community group.”
An ABA spokesman later told CU Times that the website was taken down as the trade group updates its digital platforms.
However, in several email exchanges, Jeff Sigmund, the ABA’s SVP of public relations, would not address why the ABA did not identify itself as the owner of the website.
He said the ABA protects the ownership of its websites, including its own, adding that it is common practice to do so to protect against spam and sales calls.
However, he did not say why the ABA did not identify itself as the source for the information on the website.
The website, which has been the subject of speculation in the credit union community, disappeared on the same day the ABA announced a newly redesigned web page of its own.
The website’s stated goal was to shed “a light on how big tax-exempt credit unions have gamed the system and exploited a tax loophole.”
Sigmund expanded on that idea.
“ExploreCreditUnions.com educates the public about the changing face of the credit union industry, whether bank-like credit unions deserve special tax treatment, and whether credit union regulators are up to the task of managing this ever-more complex industry segment,” Sigmund said in explaining the motive behind the website.
He cited several controversial issues the ABA said should concern taxpayers, including sponsorship of sports teams by credit unions, and advertisements that openly state that “anyone can join” a particular credit union.
“We don’t think that is what Congress intended when it created credit unions to serve people of ‘modest means,’ and ExploreCreditUnions.com exposes their failure to meet that mission,” he added.
A sampling of posts on the website’s Facebook page and Twitter feed expands on those issues:
- “Money is power and some large credit unions are working hard to ensure (the) NCUA has none by finding ways to slash their own regulator’s budget. As if the NCUA wasn’t already falling asleep at the wheel … now it might not have ANY incentive to do its job!”
- “Could there finally be a congressional crackdown on (the) NCUA looming? We sure hope so, considering the agency continues to put taxpayers at risk with its nonchalant regulation.”
- “If credit unions are going to think like banks and work like banks (and now even buy banks), they also need to be taxed like banks – not given special tax exemptions.”
Carrie Hunt, NAFCU’s EVP of government affairs and general counsel criticized the ABA’s focus on credit unions.
“Bank lobbyists spend far too much time and energy on failed attempts to rid the marketplace of credit union competition, when they should be focusing on helping consumers and local communities,” she said.
Former NCUA Board Chairman Dennis Dollar said the website does a disservice to anyone who reads its content.
“In my view, this type of hidden source media campaign would have to step up a few notches to be considered honorable,” he said. “If you are going to try to manipulate people’s opinion with one-sided information, at least own up to who is doing it so the reader can at least consider the source.”
He added, “The ABA must not be very proud of this website if they took it down rather than put their name on it as the source.”
John McKechnie, senior partner at Total Spectrum, criticized the ABA for not publicly owning the website and for being “consumed with anger toward a much smaller competitor.”
“Maybe this is a symptom of what we should call ‘credit union derangement syndrome,’” he said.” Some of the stuff on that website borders on the unhinged.”