U.S. credit reporting industry lawyer may head FTC bureau: sources

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. consumer watchdogs expressed concern on Friday that a lawyer who represented credit reporting companies over a massive data breach at Equifax is being considered to head the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The FTC’s five commissioners are voting on the appointment of Andrew Smith, a process that takes several days, according to two people familiar with the matter. The FTC declined comment.

Bloomberg had previously reported that Smith, a partner at the law firm Covington & Burling LLP, was under serious consideration for the job.

Smith worked for the Consumer Data Industry Association, which represents credit reporting companies. He testified before Congress in October on their behalf in an attempt to blunt lawmakers’ ire about the Equifax breach.

“It’s problematic that he’s going to have this job. The optics look really bad,” said Chi Chi Wu, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center who worked with Smith on a American Bar Association group that focused on financial services.

“The Equifax investigation is one of the biggest consumer protection matters that the FTC is dealing with,” she said.

Smith is expected to recuse himself from any Equifax probe, according to a third person familiar with the situation.

Ed Mierzwinski of U.S. Public Interest Research Group also called Smith’s potential appointment “problematic.”

“He did his job well for Covington on behalf of CDIA. And they have avoided a lot of necessary oversight from the Congress,” he said. “The credit bureaus are very well served by their outside attorneys.”

The FTC has opened an investigation into Equifax, which said in September that hackers stole personal data it had collected on some 143 million Americans. It is one of three credit reporting companies.

The agency does not investigate breaches but pursues companies that are sloppy in handling consumer data.

In congressional testimony in October, Smith spoke on behalf of the CDIA, of which Equifax is a member, and termed the hack an “unprecedented breach.”

Credit bureaus like Equifax, TransUnion and Experian collect and store personal information on millions of consumers. Banks and other lenders rely on the information to track how consumers spend money and manage debt, then use it to decide what interest rates to charge for loans.

The Bureau of Consumer Protection’s last permanent director was Jessica Rich, who spent 25 years at the FTC. The bureau is currently headed by acting director J. Reilly Dolan.

Reporting by Diane Bartz and Patrick Rucker; additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Cynthia Osterman