The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's choice for its new head of supervision and enforcement — the No. 3 slot at the agency — is raising eyebrows because of his political background and relative inexperience compared with similar positions at other regulators.
Chris D'Angelo last month became the agency's associate director for supervision, enforcement and fair lending, beating out several experienced attorneys, including women and minorities, for the post.
D'Angelo, 37, was formerly the agency's chief of staff, a position he took three years ago after joining the bureau in 2011 as an enforcement attorney. He now heads the agency's largest department, overseeing roughly 700 lawyers and staff employees.
In an interview, D'Angelo said his focus is on continuity.
"We will continue to hold companies accountable when they break the law and harm consumers," he said. "I want to communicate the expectation of continuity…and a push for companies to invest in compliance management systems to prevent harm in the market."
Yet some question whether D'Angelo has the right experience for the job.
"It's an unusual move to go from being chief of staff to head of enforcement, especially for somebody who doesn't have a deep background in that area," said Todd Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University and a CFPB critic. "This really is an important role and it's one that at most [regulatory] agencies is held by an experienced lawyer or someone with decades of supervisory experience."
Many credit D'Angelo's quick rise to his close ties to CFPB Director Richard Cordray, for whom he spent two years working as a senior adviser.
"Chris's advantage is that Rich trusts him more than anyone else at the CFPB," said Ron Rubin, a former CFPB enforcement attorney and a former senior counsel and chief advisor for regulatory policy to the House Financial Services Committee.
Cordray said in a statement that D'Angelo has been part of the CFPB's core senior leadership team for three years.
"Chris will help the bureau implement those strategic priorities for supervision, enforcement, and fair lending, working with that division's excellent management team," Cordray said. "He was an integral part of creating and shaping the bureau's strategic vision."
In the interview, D'Angelo said that as chief of staff he oversaw the day-to-day management of the agency, working closely with senior leaders "to tackle big problems." He described the chief of staff job as "keeping the trains running."
Many who hold positions of similar stature at other bank regulators have more experience than D'Angelo.
Michael Gibson, the director of the Federal Reserve Board's division of banking supervision and regulation, is an economist who has been at the Fed for 24 years. Richard Ashton was promoted to deputy general counsel at the Fed in 2005 after having been at the central bank for nearly 30 years.
At the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Grace Dailey was appointed senior deputy comptroller for bank supervision policy and chief national bank examiner in May. She joined the OCC in 1983. Martin Pfinsgraff, the OCC's senior deputy comptroller for large bank supervision, has been in finance for more than 30 years, including serving as president and chief financial officer at Prudential Securities Capital Markets.
To be fair, some other top regulatory officials reached senior positions after relatively little time in Washington. Mark Pearce joined the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in 2010 as the head of the agency's then-new consumer compliance division. He had previously been a state banking regulator in North Carolina from 2006 to 2009, and before that was president of the Center for Responsible Lending.
But Doreen Eberley was named head of the FDIC's safety and soundness supervision wing after having been at the agency since 1987.
The first person to hold the top enforcement job at the CFPB was Steven Antonakes, a former Massachusetts commissioner of banking, who had worked in bank supervision for 25 years.
"More life experience helps leaders understand their employees and avoid mistakes," Rubin said. "That's the main reason people over 45 usually run government agencies."
But there are questions not just about the length of D'Angelo's career, but what type of work he previously did. Before joining the bureau, D'Angelo was a regional field director for Obama for America, the president's campaign organization. He served two years in the Obama administration's Treasury Department before joining the CFPB when it was set up in 2011. As chief of staff for the bureau, D'Angelo was tasked with coordinating with the White House — a tricky job for a nominally independent agency.
To some, that raises questions about whether D'Angelo is too political for the role he is now playing.
"I see this as part of a bigger structural issue with the CFPB, in that a lot of people they've hired have close ties to the Democratic Party," said Thaya Brook Knight, associate director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute.
Finally, some point to others at the agency who might arguably have been more experienced, including the three assistant directors who report to D'Angelo.
Tony Alexis, the CFPB's assistant director of enforcement, is a former partner at Mayer Brown who spent 13 years as an assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia. He also spent four years as a trial attorney at the Justice Department.
Peggy Twohig, the CFPB's assistant director for nonbank supervision, is a former litigator who had been director of the Office of Consumer Protection at the Treasury Department. She spent 17 years at the Federal Trade Commission, serving as associate director of the division of financial practices.
And Patrice Ficklin, the CFPB's assistant director for fair lending, is a civil rights attorney who had been associate general counsel at Fannie Mae for 11 years.
To be sure, D'Angelo also has plenty of defenders.
"He's a very competent and smart guy and he knows the bureau as well as anyone," said Michael Gordon, a partner and chair of the CFPB practice at WilmerHale and a former senior counselor to Cordray at the CFPB.
Several former CFPB attorneys, who did not want to comment publicly because they represent clients before the bureau, said D'Angelo has the skills, personality and judgment for the job. Others said, while he has not been a regulator for that long, D'Angelo is a litigator at heart, which is valuable experience for fighting CFPB enforcement cases. In private practice, he worked both at Williams & Connelly and at Cravath, Swaine & Moore.
D'Angelo said he sees his role as continuing to implement Cordray's strategic vision outlined in February.
The bureau is unique in having its supervision and enforcement divisions work together, D'Angelo said.
"Neither one is more important than the other," he said. "I think we've done that in a unique way here in making those two offices co-equal partners. In other agencies, there can be a situation where one is more dominant. And both of those offices have a co-equal place at the table."
Jenny Lee, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney and a former CFPB enforcement attorney, said the CFPB remains a "bottom-up" organization with facts that come out of exams or in the field driving the rate and content of enforcement actions. That does make it similar to other agencies, which rely on the findings of field examiners to help develop policy in Washington.
"That 'bottom-up' structure, combined with staff-level positions populated with strong consumer advocates rather than industry experts, creates a perfect storm of continued aggressive enforcement," Lee said.