A version of this story was co-published on ProPublica with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
As the Rev. Susan McCann stood outside a public library in Springfield, Mo., last year, she did her best to persuade passers-by to sign an initiative to ban high-cost payday loans. But it was difficult to keep her composure, she remembers. A man was shouting in her face.
He and several others had been paid to try to prevent people from signing. "Every time I tried to speak to somebody," she recalls, "they would scream, 'Liar! Liar! Liar! Don't listen to her!'"
Such confrontations, repeated across the state, exposed something that rarely comes into view so vividly: the high-cost lending industry's ferocious effort to stay legal and stay in business.
Outrage over payday loans, which trap millions of Americans in debt and are the best-known type of high-cost loans, has led to dozens of state laws aimed at stamping out abuses. But the industry has proved extremely resilient. In at least 39 states, lenders offering payday or other loans still charge annual rates of 100 percent or more. Sometimes, rates exceed 1,000 percent.
Last year, activists in Missouri launched a ballot initiative to cap the rate for loans at 36 percent. The story of the ensuing fight illuminates the industry's tactics, which included lobbying state legislators and contributing lavishly to their campaigns; a vigorous and, opponents charge, underhanded campaign to derail the ballot initiative; and a sophisticated and well-funded outreach effort designed to convince African Americans to support high-cost lending.
Industry representatives say they are compelled to oppose initiatives like the one in Missouri. Such efforts, they say, would deny consumers what may be their best or even only option for a loan.
Quick Cash and Kwik Kash
Missouri is fertile soil for high-cost lenders. Together, payday, installment and auto-title lenders have more than 1,400 locations in the state — about one store for every 4,100 Missourians. The average two-week payday loan, which is secured by the borrower's next paycheck, carries an annual percentage rate of 455 percent in Missouri. That's more than 100 percentage points higher than the national average, according to a recent survey by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The annual percentage rate, or APR, accounts for both interest and fees.
The issue caught the attention of Democrat Mary Still, who won a seat in the state House of Representatives in 2008 and immediately sponsored a bill to limit high-cost loans. She had reason for optimism: The new governor, Jay Nixon, a Democrat, supported reform.
The problem was the Legislature. During the 2010 election cycle alone, payday lenders contributed $371,000 to lawmakers and political committees, a report by the nonpartisan and nonprofit Public Campaign, which focuses on campaign reform. The lenders hired high-profile lobbyists, and Still became accustomed to their visits. But they hardly needed to worry about the House Financial Institutions Committee, through which a reform bill would need to pass. One of the lawmakers leading the committee, Don Wells, owned a payday loan store, Kwik Kash. He could not be reached for comment.
Eventually, after two years of frustration, Still and others were ready to try another route. "Absolutely, it was going to have to take a vote of the people," she said. "The Legislature had been bought and paid for."
A coalition of faith groups, community organizations and labor unions decided to put forward the ballot initiative to cap rates at 36 percent. The main hurdle was collecting the required total of a little more than 95,000 signatures. If the initiative's supporters could do that, they felt confident the lending initiative would pass.
But even before the signature drive began, the lending industry girded for battle.
In the summer of 2011, a new organization, Missourians for Equal Credit Opportunity (MECO), appeared. Although it was devoted to defeating the payday measure, the group kept its backers secret. The sole donor was another organization, Missourians for Responsible Government, headed by a conservative consultant, Patrick Tuohey. Because Missourians for Responsible Government is organized under the 501(c)(4) section of the tax code, it does not have to report its donors. Tuohey did not respond to requests for comment.
Still, there are strong clues about the source of the $2.8 million Missourians for Responsible Government delivered to MECO over the course of the battle.
Payday lender QC Holdings declared in a 2012 filing that it had spent "substantial amounts" to defeat the Missouri initiative. QC, which mostly does business as Quik Cash (not to be confused with Kwik Kash), has 101 outlets in Missouri. In 2012, one-third of the company's profits came from the state, twice as much as from California, its second-most profitable state. If the initiative got to voters, the company was afraid of the outcome: "Ballot initiatives are more susceptible to emotion" than lawmakers' deliberations, it said in an annual filing. And if the initiative passed, it would be catastrophic, likely forcing the company to default on its loans and halt dividend payments on its common stock, the company declared.
In late 2012, QC and other major payday lenders, including Cash America and Check into Cash, contributed $88,000 to a group called Freedom PAC. MECO and Freedom PAC shared the same treasurer and received funds from the same 501(c)(4). Freedom PAC spent $79,000 on ads against Still in her 2012 losing bid for a state senate seat, state records show.
MECO's first major step was to back three lawsuits against the ballot initiative. If any one of the suits were successful, the initiative would be kept off the ballot regardless of how many citizens had signed petitions in support.
Threatening Letters; Decoy Initiatives
Meanwhile, supporters of the ballot initiative focused on amassing volunteers to gather signatures. The push started with umbrella organizations such as Metropolitan Congregations United of St. Louis, which ultimately drafted more than 50 congregations to the effort, said the Rev. David Gerth, the group's executive director. In the Kansas City area, more than 80 churches and organizations joined up, according to the local nonprofit Communities Creating Opportunity.
Predominantly African American congregations in Kansas City and St. Louis made up a major part of the coalition, but the issue crossed racial lines and extended into suburbs and small towns. Within one mile of Grace Episcopal Church in Liberty, a mostly white suburb of Kansas City, there are eight high-cost lenders. "We think it's a significant problem and that it was important for people of faith to respond to this issue," said McCann, who leads the church.
Volunteers collected signatures at Catholic fish fries during Lent and a community-wide Holy Week celebration. They went door to door and stood on street corners.
In early January 2012, a number of clergy opened their mail to find a "Legal Notice" from a Texas law firm and sent on MECO's behalf. "It has come to our attention that you, your church, or members of your church may be gathering signatures or otherwise promising to take directions from the proponents' political operatives, who tell churchgoers that their political plan is a 'Covenant for Faith and Families,'" said the letter.
"Please be advised that strict statutes carrying criminal penalties apply to the collection of signatures for an initiative petition," it said in bold type. Another sentence warned that churches could lose their tax-exempt status by venturing into politics. The letter concluded by saying MECO would be watching for violations and would "promptly report" any.
Soon after the Rev. Wallace Hartsfield of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City received the letter, a lawyer called. Had he received the letter? Hartsfield remembers being asked. He responded, "If you feel like we're doing something illegal, you need to try to sue, all right?" he recalls. Ultimately, no suits or other actions appear to have been filed against any faith groups involved in the initiative fight.
MECO did not respond to requests for comment. The law firm behind the letter, Anthony & Middlebrook of Grapevine, Texas, referred comment to the lawyer who had handled the matter, who has left the firm. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Payday lenders and their allies took other steps as well. A Republican lobbyist submitted what appears to have been a decoy initiative to the Missouri Secretary of State that, to the casual reader, closely resembled the original measure to cap loans at 36 percent. It proposed to cap loans at 14 percent, but stated that the limit would be void if the borrower signed a contract to pay a higher rate—in other words, it wouldn't change anything. A second initiative submitted by the same lobbyist, Jewell Patek, would have made any measure to cap loan interest rates unlawful. Patek declined to comment.
MECO spent at least $800,000 pushing the rival initiatives with its own crew of signature gatherers, according to the group's state filings. It was an effective tactic, said Gerth, of the St. Louis congregations group. People became confused about which was the "real" petition or assumed they had signed the 36 percent cap petition when they had not, he and others who worked on the effort said.
MECO's efforts sowed confusion in other ways. In April 2012, a local court sided with MECO in one of its lawsuits against the initiative, throwing the ballot proposition into serious jeopardy for several months until the state Supreme Court overturned the lower court's ruling. During those months, according to video shot by the rate cap's supporters, MECO's employees out on the streets warned voters who were considering signing the petition that it had been deemed "illegal."
MECO also took to the airways. "Here they come again," intones the narrator during a television ad that ran in Springfield, "Washington, D.C., special interests invading our neighborhoods." Dark figures in suits and sunglasses can be seen descending from a plane. "An army of outsiders approaching us at our stores and in our streets," says the voice. "But together we can stop them: If someone asks you to sign a voter petition, just decline to sign."
Although the ad discloses that it was paid for by MECO, it does not mention payday lending or capping interest rates.
Installment Lenders Join the Fray
Installment lenders launched a separate group, Stand Up Missouri, to fight the rate-cap initiative—and to differentiate themselves from payday lenders.
As the group's website put it, "special interest groups masquerading as grass-roots, faith-based alliances" were not only targeting payday loans but also "safe" forms of credit such as installment loans. "Stand Up Missouri does not represent payday lending or payday interests," the group said in its press releases.
Unlike payday loans, which are typically due in full after two weeks, installment loans are paid down over time. And while many payday lenders also offer such loans, they usually charge higher annual rates (from about 300 to 800 percent). The highest annual rate charged by World Finance, among the largest installment lenders in the country and the biggest backer of Stand Up Missouri, is 204 percent, according to its last annual filing.
Still, like payday lenders, installment lenders such as World profit by keeping borrowers in a cycle of debt. Installment and payday lenders are also similar in the customers they target. In neighboring Illinois, 56 percent of payday borrowers and 72 percent of installment loan borrowers in 2012 had incomes of $30,000 or less, according to state data.
World was the subject ofan investigation and Marketplace in May. The company has 76 locations in Missouri: Of all high-cost lenders, only payday lenders QC and Advance America have more locations in the state.
Stand Up Missouri raised $443,000 from installment lenders and associated businesses to oppose the rate-cap ballot initiative, according to state filings.
To broadcast their message in Missouri, the installment lenders arranged a letter-writing campaign to local newspapers, placed ads, distributed video testimonials by satisfied customers and held a rally at the capitol. Like MECO, Stand Up Missouri also filed suit with their own team of lawyers to block the initiative.
Tom Hudgins, the chairman of Stand Up Missouri as well as the president and chief operating officer of installment lender Western Shamrock, declined to be interviewed but responded to questions with an emailed statement. Stand Up Missouri acknowledges that "some financial sectors" may require reform, he wrote, but the initiative backers didn't want to work with lenders.
"Due to their intense lack of interest in cooperatively developing market-based reforms, we have and will continue to meet with Missourians in all corners of the state to discuss the financial market and opportunities to reform the same."
'Put a Good Face on This'
In February 2012, the Rev. Starsky Wilson of St. Louis sat down at a table in the Four Seasons Hotel. The floor-to-ceiling windows reveal vistas of the city's famous arch and skyline. Lined up in front of him were two lobbyists and Hudgins, he remembers.
The lenders had targeted a community that was both important to their profits and crucial to the petition drive: African Americans. Wilson, like the majority of his flock, is black.
So were the two lobbyists. Kelvin Simmons had just a few weeks before been in charge of the state budget and was a veteran of Missouri politics. His new employer was the international law firm Dentons, then called SNR Denton, and he was representing his first client, Stand Up Missouri.
Next to Simmons was Rodney Boyd, for the past decade the chief lobbyist for the city of St. Louis. He, too, worked for SNR Denton.
The lobbyists and Hudgins urged Wilson to rethink his commitment to the rate-cap ballot initiative.
Wilson was not swayed, but he was only one target among many. At the Four Seasons, Wilson says, he bumped into two other leaders of community organizations who had been summoned to hear Stand Up Missouri's message. He said he also knew of more than a dozen African American clergy who met with the lobbyists. Their message, that installment loans were a vital credit resource for middle-class African Americans, was persuasive for some. As a result, Wilson found himself mounting a counter-lobbying effort. A spokesperson for Simmons and Boyd's firm declined to comment.
In Kansas City, Rev. Hartsfield also received an invitation from the lobbyists—but that was not the only case, as Hartsfield puts it, of an African American being "sent into the community to try to put a good face on this."
Willie Green spent eight seasons as a wide receiver in the NFL and won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos. After he retired in 1999, he opened several payday loan stores of his own and went on to hold a series of positions serving as a spokesman for payday lending, especially to minority communities.
While African Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 23 percent of payday-loan borrowers, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts survey. Green was "Senior Advisor of Minority Affairs" for the Community Financial Services Association, the payday lenders' national trade group, then director of "community outreach" for Advance America, one of the largest payday lenders. Finally, in 2012, he opened his own consultancy, The Partnership Alliance Co., which, according to his LinkedIn profile, focused on "community relations." Over the past decade, he has popped up during legislative fights all over the country—North Carolina, Georgia, Washington, D.C., Arkansas, Colorado.
It is unclear who hired Green in 2012—he declined to comment, and MECO did not report paying him or his company. But to Hartsfield, it was clear he was there to advocate on behalf of payday lending.
Green once penned an open letter to the Georgia's legislative black caucus arguing that government regulation on payday loans was unneeded and paternalistic: Opponents of payday lending "believe that people unlike them are just po' chillin' who must be parented by those who know better than they do what's in their best interest," he wrote, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
During their private meeting, Hartsfield said, Green made a similar argument but also discussed church issues unrelated to the ballot initiative. The payday-lending industry might be able to help with those, Hartsfield recalled Green saying. The message the minister received from the offer, he said, was, "We'll help you with this over there if you stop this over here."
Green referred all questions to his new employer, the installment lender World Finance. In a statement, World did not address specific questions but said the company was "pleased to have Mr. Green as a member of its team to enhance World's outreach to the communities that it serves and to provide him the opportunity to continue his many years of being personally involved in and giving back to those communities."
Hartsfield did not take Green up on his offer, but the former athlete has served as a gateway to the industry's generosity before. In 2009 in Colorado, where payday loan reform was a hot topic (a bill ultimately passed in 2010), Green presented the Urban League of Metro Denver with a $10,000 check on behalf of Advance America. Landri Taylor, president and chief executive of the organization, recalled that Green had approached him with the offer and that he was glad for the support. He also said that lending was not a core issue for his organization and that, even if it were, the contribution couldn't have bought its allegiance.
In Georgia in 2007, Green, then a registered lobbyist, gave a state lawmaker $80,000 a few weeks before the Legislature voted on a bill to legalize payday lending. The lawmaker, who subsequently pleaded guilty to unrelated federal charges of money laundering, was one of 11 Democrats to vote for the bill.
After the Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke news of the transfer, Green produced documents showing that it had been a loan for a real estate investment: The lawmaker had promised to repay the loan plus $40,000, but had never done so, Green said. The state ethics commission subsequently found Green had broken no state laws, because lobbyists are allowed to engage in private business transactions with lawmakers.
The Case of the Missing Petitions
By the spring of 2012, supporters of the initiative were in high gear. Volunteers, together with some paid employees, were collecting hundreds of signatures each day. They were increasingly confident they would hit their mark.
In some areas, such as Springfield, the work resembled hand-to-hand combat. Through intermediaries, such as ProActive Signature Solutions, the initiative's opponents hired people to oppose it.
"It was a well-funded effort," said Oscar Houser of ProActive. He declined to say which company had retained ProActive. However, only MECO reported spending funds on what it said were signature gatherers. Those employees, according to Houser, eventually focused solely on trying to prevent people from signing the initiative.
Marla Marantz, a Springfield resident and retired schoolteacher, was hired to gather signatures for the 36 percent cap initiative. Just about every day, she could expect to be joined by at least one, and often several, of ProActive's employees, she says. Wherever she went—the public library, the DMV—they would soon follow. It was a tactic both she and her adversaries (with whom she became very familiar, if not friendly) called "blocking."
"What we're doing is preventing them from being able to get signatures," one ProActive employee says on a video shot by a Missouri State University journalism student. Asked to describe how "blocking" works, the employee says: "Usually, we get a larger group than they have. We pretty much use the power of numbers." In the video, as Marantz stands outside a public building, three ProActive employees surround her.
ProActive's employees did not identify themselves to voters as affiliated with payday lending, Marantz says. They sometimes wore T-shirts reading "Volunteer Petition Official" or held signs urging citizens to "Stand up for Equal Opportunity."
Marantz shared various photos and videos of her experiences. In one video, a library employee tells a group of ProActive employees they will be asked to leave if they continue to make patrons uncomfortable. At other times, Marantz says, exasperated public employees or the police simply asked anyone collecting signatures to leave the area.
McCann also gathered signatures for the initiative and experienced "blocking." "I had on my clerical collar, and they seemed to address a lot of their vitriol at me," she remembers.
In May 2012, Missourians for Responsible Lending, the organization formed by supporters of the initiative, filed suit in county court in Springfield, alleging that MECO, through ProActive, was illegally harassing and assaulting its signature gatherers. The suit included sworn declarations by Marantz and three others who had said they had endured similar treatment. It called for a temporary restraining order that would keep MECO's employees at least 15 feet away.
MECO, via its lawyers, fired back. The suit was an unconstitutional attempt by supporters of the initiative to silence their political opponents based on alleged "sporadic petty offenses," MECO argued. Even if the initiative's detractors "engaged in profanity-laced insults all of the time," they said, such behavior would still be protected by the First Amendment.
Houser called the suit "frivolous" and said he was happy to let MECO's lawyers handle it. The suit stalled.
"Blocking" wasn't the only problem initiative supporters encountered. Matthew Patterson ran a nonprofit, ProVote, that coordinated signature gathering in the Springfield area. On the night of April 25, 2012, Patterson put a box of petitions in his car. Then, realizing he had forgotten his phone in his office, he locked his car and went back inside.
When he returned, his passenger-side window was broken and the box of petitions was gone, according to Patterson and the police report he filed. The box had contained about 5,000 voter signatures, about half of which were for the 36 percent cap initiative, Patterson said.
No arrest was ever made. Volunteers from Kansas City and St. Louis converged on the area to recoup the lost signatures. The final deadline to submit signatures to the secretary of state's office was less than two weeks away.
23,000 Over, 270 Under
In August, the Missouri Secretary of State announced that supporters of the initiative had submitted more than 118,000 valid signatures, about 23,000 more than needed.
But the state's rules required that they collect signatures from at least 5 percent of voters in six of the state's nine congressional districts. They had met that threshold in five districts—but in the First District, which includes North St. Louis, they were 270 signatures short.
A week later, initiative supporters filed a challenge in court, arguing that local election authorities had improperly disqualified far more than 270 signatures. MECO and Stand Up Missouri joined the fray, arguing not only that signatures had been properly excluded, but also that far more should have been tossed out.
Eventually, with only a couple of weeks before the deadline to finalize the November ballot, backers of the initiative decided they could not match the lenders' ability to check thousands of signatures. They withdrew their challenge.
"It was so frustrating, disappointing," McCann said. "People had spent hours and hours and hours on this initiative."
Looking to 2014
The initiative's supporters now have their eye on 2014, and they have made the necessary preparation by filing the same petition again with the secretary of state.
The industry has also made preparations. MECO has reported adding $331,000 to its war chest since December. Stand Up Missouri has raised another $151,000.
Last May, Jewell Patek, the same Republican lobbyist who filed the industry's initiatives in 2011, filed a new petition. It caps annual rates at 400 percent.
The installment lenders have continued their effort to woo African Americans. In December, Stand Up Missouri was a sponsor of a Christmas celebration for Baptist ministers in St. Louis, and in June, it paid for a $20,000 sponsorship of the National Baptist Convention, hosted this year in St. Louis. It's retained the same high-powered African American lobbyists and added one more: Cheryl Dozier, a lobbyist who serves as executive director of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus. Lastly, Willie Green, according to initiative supporters who have spoken with the ministers, has made overtures to African American clergy on behalf of World Finance.