The Trump administration has ended Operation Choke Point, the anti-fraud initiative started under the Obama administration that many Republicans argued was used to target gun retailers and other businesses that Democrats found objectionable.
Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd told GOP representatives in a Wednesday letter that the long-running program had ended, bringing a conclusion to a chapter in the Obama years that long provoked and angered conservatives who saw Choke Point as an extra-legal crackdown on politically disfavored groups.
"All of the department's bank investigations conducted as part of Operation Chokepoint are now over, the initiative is no longer in effect, and it will not be undertaken again," Boyd wrote in the letter.
The letter was addressed to Jeb Hensarling and Bob Goodlatte, the chairmen of the Financial Services and Judiciary Committees, respectively. Their staffs confirmed they received the letter.
The Republicans had written last week to Attorney General Jeff Sessions for confirmation that the program was over so that businesses that might be targeted could breathe easy.
After the Obama Justice Department began Operation Choke Point in 2013, Hensarling and other conservatives accused them of denying the constitutional rights of businesses like gun dealers and payday lenders by targeting them for scrutiny under the program, cutting off their access to the banking system under the guise of investigating fraud and money laundering.
The GOP said companies were still wary that they could lose access to the banking system, and needed clear guidance from the Trump administration that the program wouldn't be continued.
In a joint statement, Hensarling, Goodlatte, and Blaine Luetkemeyer of Missouri and Darrell Issa said that the Trump administration has "restored the Department's responsibility to pursue lawbreakers, not legitimate businesses."
The also said that the "Obama Administration created this ill-advised program to suffocate legitimate businesses to which it was ideologically opposed by intimidating financial institutions into denying banking services to those businesses."
Not that the government is totally done with Choke Point. Boyd said the department would follow up on investigations that stemmed from the original program.
Nevertheless, Boyd called Choke Point a "misguided initiative" and said that the administration shares the Republicans' concerns about lawful businesses being scrutinized just because their activities are disfavored. He also noted, though, that some of the responses to subpoenas originally issued as part of the program uncovered criminal activity.
Separately, Luetkemeyer called for the federal banking regulators tasked with cracking down on banks thought to be facilitating crimes to also definitively state that they would stop doing so. Luetkemeyer, who chairs the financial institutions subcomittee, also called for Congress to pass legislation he's authored to prevent the administration from undertaking similar programs in the future.
Some banks have still experienced bank examiners taking issue with certain customers in recent months, said Camden R. Webb, the chair of the firearms industry practice group at the law firm Williams Mullen. The Justice Department's letter was a "great step in the right direction for the gun industry and other industries," Webb said, but businesses have to be realistic that "we don't have any official position statement, at least not presently, from the bank regulators."
Dennis Shaul, the head of the Community Financial Services Association of America that represents some of the targeted payday lenders, said that his group will keep pursuing a lawsuit against the federal government over Operation Choke Point in order to "hold these regulatory agencies accountable" and allow businesses to regain access to the banking system.