By Michael Norris Pentagram Assistant EditorApril 28, 2011
Holly Petraeus, head of the Office of Servicemembers Affairs in the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, visited Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall last week with Elizabeth Warren, an assistant to the president and special advisor to the secretary of the Treasury Department, who has been charged with setting up the CFPB. The two women outlined the breadth of the new agency and asked military personnel and Family members what issues it should cover at a town hall meeting April 13.
In an interview with the Pentagram, Petraeus, wife of the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, talked about her background and her role in helping establish the parameters of a new agency.
Before joining the CFPB, Petraeus served for six years as the director of the Better Business Bureau's Military Line. Military Line was formed in 2003 as an outgrowth of the Department of Defense's Financial Readiness Campaign. BBB was one of more than 20 non-profit organizations to partner with the campaign that year.
Petraeus described the Better Business Bureau, in part, as keeping statistics on demographic groups targeted by scams.
"My job at BBB Military Line was to develop educational and outreach programs to address the issues raised in the 50,000 military complaints BBB receives each year and to be sure that the local BBBs had the access and the tools to help the military in their service areas," she explained.
"It was great preparation for my new job," she said, "since I learned a lot about the financial issues impacting the military and I also got to know the many government and non-profit agencies who work on financial literacy.
"It's exciting to be in on the ground floor of a new agency, and to help map out the path it will take to carry out its mandate," she added. "It's a bit daunting, but there is a great deal of enthusiasm here for building an agency whose number one job is to help consumers. And I'm delighted that the military was singled out to have its own office that would address its unique issues."
Petraeus explained the similarities and differences between her former and current jobs.
"The big difference between BBB and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is that BBB is a reporting agency," she said. "It can shine a light on bad practices but it can't enforce against them. Once the CFPB stands up, it will be able to do that. It will be able to issue rules to ensure fairness and transparency for mortgages, credit cards, and other consumer financial services and it will also enforce consumer laws, focusing on the practices and providers that provide the most risk to consumers."
In addition to her professional background, Petraeus brings a wealth of personal experience to her position at CFPB. At the town hall meeting she shared her experiences as a young Army wife with the audience.
"I certainly wouldn't say that we were smart about how we spent our money when we were young," she elaborated.
"We had to have the expensive sports car and I remember paying far too much for a really ugly battleship-gray metal desk at a rent-to-own store. But we were protected, in a way, because credit cards and the temptations of easy credit weren't around then.
"Now it's too easy to get into trouble," she emphasized, sharing some sad stories from Better Business Bureau case files. "It just reinforced my determination to work against people who knowingly rip off our troops. At the Office of Servicemember Affairs I'll be able to do that."
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is still looking for qualified employees. Petraeus and Warren encouraged members of the audience at the town hall to apply for agency positions.
"The job of the CFPB implementation team is to find and hire the best people we possibly can to work for this agency,"
Petraeus told the Pentagram ''Obviously some will be experts in consumer finance issues ... I should add that the CFPB is very anxious to have veterans and military Family members among our applicants.
Those who are interested should watch for CFPB job postings on usajobs.gov, she said.
Petraeus said she sees her role as advocate and watchdog.
"I passionately believe that military personnel deserve to be protected from unfair and illegal business practices," she said.
"The military has been working on financial literacy and consumer advocacy for a long time, and I'm the first to applaud them for what they have already done. I know many of the financial readiness program managers and I think they will be invaluable in advising us about the issues and getting the word out about the CFPB.
"I want the military community to know that we are there to help them," Petraeus stressed, explaining how she and Warren have been traveling to military installations around the country to get feedback.
"We want to hear about their financial concerns and take action to help them. Those who don't get the chance to talk to us in person but have something they want us to know can email the Office of Servicemember Affairs at email@example.com."