Johnson, Petraeus seek financial help for soldiers

The wife of retired Gen. David Petraeus said members of the military, their families and veterans often face the same enemy as other people: financial stress.

Holly Petraeus, assistant director of the Office of Servicemember Affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said payday lenders and others who offer quick, high-interest loans often locate near military bases.

They are “like bears at a trout stream,” Petraeus said.

She said some members of the military are at risk of losing their homes because of trouble with the mortgages that is often compounded by their transitory career.

She took part in a conference call Wednesday with Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.

Petraeus said she was “honored” to be asked to join the call and spread the word about the issue and her agency.

She has three main goals:

* To ensure military personnel and families get consumer education to help them make informed decisions;

* To monitor the consumer complaints that come in to the government and the responses that are issued;

* And to coordinate with other federal agencies to help protect and inform military personnel, their families, retirees and veterans.

“I think a soldier who is preoccupied with financial troubles is not able to give 100 percent to their job,” Petraeus said. “And that can be dangerous both to them and the people with which they serve.”

She is working to educate and train members of the military, their families, retirees and veterans on how to better handle their finances. Many have problems with their home mortgages, she said, and are “under water,” with their homes worth less than what they owe.

“Certainly, a big concern for them is the housing market right now,” Petraeus said. “That’s an issue that is a real concern.”

She said some members of the military cannot refinance their homes since they often move from base to base.

Petraeus said she relocated 24 times in 37 years. Her husband David is a retired four-star general who now serves as the director of the CIA.

Johnson, whose eldest son Brooks is a first sergeant and recruiter in the Army National Guard, said people in the military lead a life filled with change and surprise.

“Members of our military know firsthand how quickly orders can arrive and move them across the country or the world,” he said. “These deployments make them lead a far more mobile lifestyle than the average consumer.”

Petraeus is also examining overall indebtedness and how people in the military and their families use payday loans and other high-interest loans.

Pawnshops and payday lenders surround military bases, Petraeus said, and members of the military are “disproportionately targeted” by these firms.

Some soldiers are away from home for the first time and will take out a loan from the company with the biggest billboard near their base, she said.

“Some years ago, payday lenders were absolutely preying on the military,” Petraeus said.

Some collectors harass the service members or their superiors and that is a concern, she said.

Some steps have been taken, and the government capped the interest rates of payday and short-term loans made to the military at 36 percent annually.

But she said the definition of payday loans is narrowly defined and some lenders have tweaked their loans to once again unfairly profit from their customers.

Johnson, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said steps need to be taken to prevent predatory lenders from targeting members of the military and their families.

“The men and women shouldn’t be forced to go to battle with financial scam artists,” he said.

Petraeus said while some unethical businesses target members of the military, most people and businesses are far more supportive.

“There’s a very positive feeling about the military and a lot of people want to do right for them,” she said.

She is the great-granddaughter, granddaughter and daughter of veterans, in addition to being a military wife and the mother of a soldier.

Petraeus said she hopes to come to Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, where more than 3,500 members of the military are stationed.

In addition, there are about 72,000 veterans in South Dakota, Johnson said.

“These are very, very special people,” she said. “We do owe our freedom to them. They have sacrificed for all of us.”

Petraeus said while she doesn’t speak publicly for her husband, “he certainly supports what I do,” she said.

Johnson had Petraeus join him to spotlight the issue in the days leading up to Veterans Day, which is Friday.

“We wouldn’t be here with the freedoms we have without members of the military,” Johnson said. “As we honor the sacrifices of those who have worn the uniform, Congress has to make sure we are giving them the best tools on and off the battlefield.”

It also allowed Johnson to make the case for confirming President Obama’s nominee to lead the CFPB, former Ohio attorney general from Rich Cordray.

“It’s my hope this Veterans Day that Senate Republicans will end their objections,” Johnson said.

Republicans want the director to be replaced by a five-member board and they insist that Congress approve the agency’s annual budget.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune is one of the Senate Republicans threatening a filibuster to prevent Cordray from assuming the post. While the Democrats have enough votes to have his appointment confirmed, they do not have 60 votes to halt a filibuster.

“While the Democrats are claiming that the Republicans are standing in the way of consumer protection by blocking this nominee, the fact of the matter is this newly created agency has expansive powers, independent funding and little oversight,” Thune said in an e-mailed statement to The Daily Republic. “What Republicans have asked for are a few simple changes that would make the agency more accountable to the American people. At this point, holding up the nomination for the director of the CFPB is the only way to get this administration to add some accountability to this new bureaucracy.”

The new agency was created as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, Johnson said. Without Senate approval, it will not be able to regulate mortgage brokers, payday lenders, private issuers of student loans and other segments of the financial world with limited regulation.

On other issues:

* Johnson said former governor and congressman Bill Janklow’s announcement that he has inoperable brain cancer was sad news for Johnson personally.

“My thoughts and prayers go out to Bill,” he said. “It’s painful for both Barbara and I to think about his situation.”

Johnson, 65, and Janklow, 72, both attended the University of South Dakota, where they earned undergraduate and law degrees.

Johnson was elected to the Legislature in 1978, the same year Janklow won the first of four races for governor. Johnson served eight years in Pierre before claiming the state’s sole congressional seat in 1986.

* Johnson was asked about the congressional Super Committee tasked with reducing federal spending and if that would impact farm policy and spending.

“It really isn’t a farm bill. The Super Committee is in charge of cutting $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years of the budget and it’s going to recommend $23 billion come from agriculture over 10 years,” he said.

“The farm bill isn’t up until next year but the ag committees were in charge of, wisely I think, coming up with recommendations how much they cut out of the budget, the ag budget.”

That’s in keeping with the work of the Base Closing and Realignment Commission, Johnson said, which examined which military posts to shutter.

“I admit it is an imperfect process to go through as was the case with the Base Closing Commission,” he said. “I hope the Super Committee’s recommendations are followed and worked out.”

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