Pray or prey? How Amscot used ministers to lobby for its payday loan bill

For Amscot, it was just one part of an effort to persuade a group of lawmakers whose constituents would be most affected by the bill: black Democrats
Amscot founder Ian MacKechnie at the company's Tampa headquarters in 2016. [Allie Knothe | Tampa Bay Times]
Amscot founder Ian MacKechnie at the company's Tampa headquarters in 2016. [Allie Knothe | Tampa Bay Times]
Published April 4, 2018|Updated April 4, 2018

When state lawmakers voted on a payday loan bill this year, they heard from a group not normally associated with the financial industry: men of the cloth.

Pastors from churches around the state spoke in favor of payday loans, and they weren't alone. A leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — the organization founded Dr. Martin Luther King — supported it. Even the granddaughter of a celebrated Florida civil rights leader was an advocate.

The ministers managed the Tallahassee trek by flying on private jets chartered by Florida's largest payday loan company, Amscot. They spread the payday gospel among black Democratic lawmakers, who Amscot's  CEO considered critical to the bill's success.

Amscot had the support of the vast majority of lawmakers, but it paid special focus to black Democrats, whose constituents could be most impacted by the bill.

Flying in pastors from lawmakers' home districts was just one part of their strategy, and it worked: of the 26 black Democrats in the Legislature, only three voted against it, about the same rate as all lawmakers.

"What these pastors did is provide cover for how these Democrats are voting," said Alice Vickers, director of the Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection, who was against the bill. "It gives them an excuse for their vote. They get the cover of having all these black pastors being flown up here, so their vote looks like, 'Oh, we're doing it for their constituent group.'"

This year's bill was the most significant expansion of the payday loan industry since the companies were first allowed to operate in the state in the early 2000s. Companies like Amscot will now offer up to a $1,000 loan and collect up to $214 in fees. Before, the companies could only offer $500 loans and collect $55 in fees.

For Amscot and other companies, the bill was critical to staying in business in Florida. A new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rule, which was proposed under the Obama administration and is now on hold under the Trump administration, would wipe out the payday industry, the CFPB admits. By increasing the amount of the loans, lenders in Florida can get around the rule.

The bill sailed through this year's Legislature despite concerns from consumer protection groups, who cited studies showing that payday loan companies unfairly target minority neighborhoods.

The ease with which the bill passed surprised its opponents, who believed that Democrats would rally against the industry.

"It was the bizarrest alignment of Democrats around this issue that I've ever seen," Vickers said.

Diane Standaert, executive vice president at the Center for Responsible Lending, called it "shocking."

"It was almost as if the fate of the bill was predetermined from the outset," she said.

Republicans sponsored and pushed the bill, but Tampa's Janet Cruz and Miami Gardens' Oscar Braynon, the two Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, co-sponsored it, and black Democrats seemed almost universally in favor of it. Lawmakers and advocates, including the pastors, said they didn't want to see the payday loan industry disappear.

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For Amscot, the lobbying campaign was years in the making. The company was talking to church leaders and organizations in the black community, winning them over with dialogue, workshops and donations, for at least two years.

"We think it's being a good corporate citizen, and it's the right thing to do," said Ian MacKechnie, Amscot's founder and CEO.

But skeptics could see it as influence for future favors.

Evelyn Bethune, the granddaughter of the civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune, told lawmakers in January that Amscot offered a "great product" and was a "great community partner."

"They don't just take out of the community," she told them in January. "They put back into the community as well."

She later said Amscot paid for her airfare, including a ride back to Daytona Beach in a private jet. She said Amscot had given to her charity before, and she would now be asking Amscot to help pay for a community garden project.

The Rev. Manuel Sykes flew to Tallahassee on Amscot's private jet and said his St. Petersburg church, Bethel Community Baptist, was later given a "small contribution" by Amscot.

The Rev. Wayne Wilson, of the United Community Church in St. Petersburg, said he also flew on a private jet to Tallahassee, met with lawmakers and voiced support for the bill.

But Bethune, Sykes and Wilson said Amscot's donations or airfare did not sway them to support the legislation.

"I'm not for sale," Wilson said. "But some people are. That would change some people's minds. It wouldn't change mine."

Bethune said, "Amscot does not have enough money to buy my support."

Each said Amscot was a good corporate citizen.

"You can always count on Amscot for a sponsorship, whether it's a baseball team or a church trying to hold a special program," Sykes said.

Advocates noted that payday loans were cheaper and less nefarious than credit cards and pawn shops, two other types of short-term credit. Unlike credit cards, Florida does not allow borrowers to take out more than one payday loan at a time. Even ardent opponents of payday lenders acknowledge that banks and credit unions do a poor job supplying credit to underprivileged communities.

Amscot gave to other organizations. The Urban League of Pinellas and Broward counties got $100,000 in August. In January, a representative of the Pinellas chapter told lawmakers about how he used a $500 payday loan to help get his son through college.

The company has also been a steady giver to the Florida Caucus of Black State Legislators. But its executive director, Ecytrim Lamarr, would not say exactly how much Amscot has given, and the organization does not disclose its donors.

"They've been supportive of us for about 10 years, and it hovers between $2,500, maybe 5, and some good years, 10," Lamarr said. "I would call them in the middle of the pack (compared to other corporate donors)."

And while Amscot's campaign contributions overwhelmingly favor Republicans, the company has given mostly to black Democrats in the last 18 months.

MacKechnie said he gave to candidates of all races and parties, and he wasn't targeting just one.

"If you're in a regulated business, or really any business, you have to be engaged in the political process," he said. "All we ask is to have our voice heard and the chance to make our case."

Opponents, which included other church leaders and the NAACP, saw it differently.

"What we were exposed to is a well-financed access machine by the payday loan industry," said the Rev. James Golden, who has a church in Tampa and spoke against the bill in Tallahassee.

But Golden, too, didn't pay for his flights to the capital. He said another interest group paid for his flights on the low-cost Silver Airways, but he wouldn't say who.

One of the surprising supporters of the bill, according to Vickers, was state Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa, who is running for attorney general.

Shaw said bringing pastors to Tallahassee might have been a strategy to win over Democrats, and he said Amscot came to him for support of the bill.

He said his support — he voted for it three times in committees — angered and confused people.

"I was getting a lot of people that were upset and were calling and wondering why I was doing it," he said.

But he said he voted for it because so many people in his district rely on payday loans and he couldn't cast a vote that would potentially do away with the industry.

"I wish that they didn't have to use payday loans to make ends meet every month," he said. "But I know people who do."

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