WASHINGTON — A senior civil rights official at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is poised to tell Congress Thursday that the agency is mishandling internal employee complaints of discrimination and has repeatedly retaliated against staff who spoke out.
Florine Williams, a senior equal employment specialist at the CFPB's Office of Civil Rights, is scheduled to testify before the House Financial Services oversight and investigations subcommittee as one of two "whistleblowers" lawmakers have called to probe accusations of discrimination at the agency.
Though a handful of CFPB employees have made similar claims in three hearings held last year, Williams' testimony is especially significant because she works in the agency's civil rights unit and she supports others' claims of mistreatment by that office. She also has handled civil rights and equal employment opportunity matters for more than 20 years, including for other federal agencies such as the Defense Department, Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Postal Service.
"I have witnessed agencies take swift, remedial action, up to and including termination of employment for violations of the EEO law. I have also worked in environments that were in a perpetual struggle for fairness and equality," said Williams, a senior equal employment specialist at the CFPB, according to her written testimony. "But never until my employment at the CFPB have I witnessed such blatant and willful disregard for the law, merit systems principles, and the well-being of its employees."
A CFPB spokesman did not immediately comment for this article, but the agency has said in the past that it can't comment on individual cases.
Williams said problems in the civil rights division stem from a lack of "seasoned" EEO leaders, commenting that most of the staff "lacks the necessary qualifications and abilities to conduct EEO duties." She claims that roughly 80% of all EEO work, including training, complaint processing and report writing, is outsourced, with the agency's employees mostly limited to reviewing the work of third parties.
Though accusations of employee discrimination were first made public last year, Williams argues that the CFPB remains "in a state of denial" about the problem and that "the bureau's apathy has contributed to the normalization and legitimization of blatant discrimination within the agency."
"The CFPB's failure to promote equal employment opportunity and diversity, and manager's discrimination and retaliation against their own employees, has made a mockery of the Bureau's EEO program and in particular the Office of Civil Rights," Williams said.
One specific accusation Williams makes is that the CFPB's assistant director in charge of the office of civil rights previously served only as an advocate for the agency's management against employee complainants in EEO and grievance disputes. To Williams, "she is the epitome of the fox guarding the hen house.'"
"The level of unprofessional treatment and dysfunction that I have observed and endured has not only hurt me, but has hurt countless CFPB employees who would naturally look to an Office of Civil Rights for protection against discrimination," Williams said.
She also pointed to the inaction from top officials, including Director Richard Cordray, in reprimanding managers or correcting problems in the EEO office. On Feb. 23, 2015, Williams sent a letter to Cordray and several lawmakers describing problems.
"Despite my repeated attempts to bring to the attention of CFPB's senior management the improper personnel practices and discrimination I have been subjected to for almost two years, not a single individual has been reprimanded," said Williams, who also filed her own complaint of discrimination in October. "It is disheartening that after three Congressional hearings [on this topic] and nearly two years of my attempts to address these issues internally that no appreciable progress has been made... I cannot adequately describe the pervasive and chilling atmosphere that prevails throughout CFPB."
Williams will testify along with Robert Cauldwell, an examiner at the agency and its local union chapter president. Cauldwell was among eight employees who shared their stories of EEO complaints in a story last week by NMN sister publication American Banker that identified the CFPB as having the highest number of such complaints so far this fiscal year among the four bank regulators.
"The CFPB's management, all the way to the very top, has not exhibited the leadership, compassion, or skills needed to satisfactorily achieve the mission set forth in the Dodd-Frank Act," Cauldwell said in his written testimony. "The very soul of the CFPB is at issue in this hearing. Right now, the Bureau is soulless."