What is the Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions hiding?
The department in-charge of regulating money lenders won’t release records around consumer complaints, saying all its records are confidential
The Tennessee State Capitol with locked gates. (Photo: John Partipilo)
The Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions refused to release records related to consumer complaints, citing a five-decade-old provision in state law allowing the commissioner to block any record request.
In August, the Lookout filed a public records request to see what banks, payday lenders and other financial institutions consumers are filing complaints about, only to be denied.
The Lookout’s initial request was a master list of complaints filed to the Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions (TDFI), which regulates any company in the state that loans money. As part of its duties, the department receives and investigates consumer complaints.
The Lookout also made a similar request to the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office Consumer Complaint Division, which provided complaint records.
The TDFI cited several statutes when denying the request, including one stating such a list didn’t exist. The Lookout then narrowed its request to specific complaints in an attempt to deal with the department’s confidentiality concerns, only to be rejected again.
After several follow-up communications with a department lawyer, it was made clear that records requests from the Lookout were denied based on a provision in state law where “no information from the records of the [Department of Financial Institutions] shall be revealed without the consent of the commissioner.”
Deborah Fisher, the executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said it’s “unusual” for a state agency to have complete confidentiality.
“This isn’t good government,” Fisher said. “Some of the records should be confidential, but I don’t think a department should have a blanket exemption to make all records confidential, especially one that’s in charge of enforcing laws against predatory lending.”
Alicia Owens, a spokesperson for TDFI, said the department doesn’t release any records because of privacy concerns.
“This department maintains highly sensitive individual and commercial information,” Owens said. “We have made a concerted effort not to establish a disclosure precedent that might weaken or jeopardize the confidentiality of department records generally.”
The TDFI record exemption dates back to 1969 and was last updated in 1993.
This isn't good government. Some of the records should be confidential, but I don't think a department should have a blanket exemption to make all records confidential, especially one that's in charge of enforcing laws against predatory lending.
– Deborah Fisher, executive director, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government
The department does release some information related to consumer complaints like the number filed and in what counties. But it does not release any information on the companies they’re filed against or the type of complaints.
“How are we supposed to know the department is enforcing laws or that information about problems is getting to the public or lawmakers?” Fisher said.
“The payday lending industry does not have a good reputation nationally,” she continued, “and unfortunately, we don’t know a lot about it because the people with keys to some information claim everything — not just some of it, but everything — is confidential.”
The Lookout’s initial public records request82923 - Adam Friedman - TDFI consumer complaints
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