Until the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau decided to embark on its lavish, over-the-top renovation for its downtown Washington, D.C headquarters, Korean immigrant Matthew Kimwon believed he was living the American dream.
But all of his hopes and dreams vanished when federal bureaucrats at the CFPB and at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency — which technically was the landlord — sought to unilaterally tear up his lease which still had a five-year option.
Kimwon says he lost his life’s savings when CFPB evicted him because of an agency plan to conduct a wholesale renovation of its offices, which were originally built in the 197os.
The federal renovation has been in plagued with a cost overrun of 400 percent, from an original estimate of $54 million to $216 million.
CFPB’s poor cost controls were criticized by a September 2015 Inspector General report. “The CFPB headquarters renovation is a multiyear project that poses several challenges for the CFPB, including managing and mitigating risks associated with schedule delays, unanticipated expenses, and cost overruns,” they concluded.
Another financial sore point for some good government groups is that the salaries for CFPB officials are not pegged to the federal pay scale, but to the elevated Federal Reserve salary levels.
As a result, scores of CFPB officials enjoy higher salaries than Supreme Court justices, cabinet secretaries, members of Congress and most state governors.
These large numbers are incomprehensible to Kimwon. Instead, he laments, “I lost everything” due to the CFPB renovation. He estimated his losses exceed $200,000, clearly chump change for the federal agency.
There is a cruel irony to Kimwon’s plight. CFPB was originally created by progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren to advance “economic justice.” And the Obama administration repeatedly promised over the last seven years that it would fight for immigrant rights.
Kimwon played by the rules. He legally immigrated to this country. He thought he was buying into the American dream.
And rather than be a ward of the state, Kimwon sought to build a small business that generated revenue, paid taxes and offered jobs to fellow Americans.
One of the most attractive features of his new store was its location. The sandwich shop was across the street from the White House complex and on both sides of the building were other executive branch agencies.
His sub shop was popular with low-income area workers who couldn’t afford the high prices of the nearby restaurants that cater to well-paid the White House staff and to Washington’s lobbyists.
After about a year of operation and six months before his lease was to expire, the Korean immigrant tried to initiate discussions in 2013 to invoke his five-year option. As a franchise owner, real profits don’t materialize for shop owners until a store has at least five years’ operations.
On August 28, 2013, he wrote OCC officials in an email, “As we discussed, I will renew my lease option.”
But CFPB and OCC officials blew him off. They would not meet or talk to him and they did not respond to his email.
Then, in May 2014, along with other tenants, he received an official OCC letter informing them that “CFPB staff will vacate the building in phases over the next month,” and that it would “take three years to complete.”
Kimwon admits he was in a “weak” position because his main lease was to expire only two weeks later, on May 31. He told TheDCNF when federal officials refused to talk to discuss his option, he felt he should leave.
Like many new immigrants, Kimwon also was apprehensive about powerful governmental officials. “Almost impossible to fight government,” he told TheDCNF. “I want to sit down and get peaceful settlement. But they don’t talk to me,” he said.
Kimwon believed his business was on borrowed time and he feared legal liabilities if he continued to operate without a lease.
On May 22, 2013, he capitulated, telling OCC, “I am not going to take my lease option because of building renovation.”
Other tenants who still had leases stayed on. In September 2015 OCC terminated all of the contracts and closed down all of the remaining stores.
Unlike the other retail tenants, however, Kimwon did not retain a lawyer. This was a fatal mistake.
He learned after he vacated the premises that other store owners who did hire attorneys received financial compensation for their losses.
Kimwon’s English is poor. In his last email to OCC contracting officer Deborah Van Buskirk on July 13 of this year, he wrote in broken English, “Can you imagine how much I had suffered and how many times I had tried to contact you to renew five years’ option?”
He added, “despite a renewal option negotiation is supposed to start 6-month advance of the expiry. I haven’t received any official answer from you regarding my renewal option offer at August 28, 2013.”
Samuel Gilford, the CFPB’s main spokesman decided to sidestep to Kimwon’s eviction, telling TheDCNF in an email they weren’t responsible.
“The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency owns the property and manages all tenant relations, and would thus be better positioned to comment on your request,” the CFPB official said.
Stephanie Collins, an OCC spokesman told TheDCNF, that in May, 2014, “Mr. Kimwon notified the OCC by phone and e-mail that he was not going to exercise his renewal option” and that he “vacated the premises after the conclusion of his lease on May 31, 2014”
Collins said they would not compensate Kimwon at all, telling TheDCNF, they “informed Mr. Kimwon by e-mail that the agency had no contract with him to warrant such compensation.”
When pressed by DCNF, Collins refused to explain why OCC officials never met with him.
Kimwon says that the admits he sent the May 22 email out of fear. He was fearful he could not get insurance if he continued without a lease. He felt he had no way out.
“It’s not easy to approach government,” he told TheDCNF. “Because of this loss, it’s been tough.”
His plight has attracted the attention of Rep. Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican who is chairman of the House Financial Services oversight subcommittee.
Learning of Kimwon’s plight, Duffy said the bureau “has disregard for how their policies and actions affect the lives of hard-working Americans. This is the little guy getting his lunch eaten by the bully.”
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