December 7, 2017 / 5:21 PM / a year ago

U.S. financial data chief defends agency before foes in Congress

WASHINGTON, Dec 7 (Reuters) - The outgoing head of a U.S. government agency created to gather system-wide market data was forced to defend the agency’s existence in the U.S. Congress Thursday, as lawmakers and the Trump administration looked to drastically shrink its role.

The outgoing head of the Office of Financial Research faced a grilling from Republicans on Thursday, questioned aggressively about its budget, operations, expertise and existence.

“I wouldn’t argue that OFR is other agency has the ability to collect data across the financial system,” said Richard Berner in a House hearing. “The work the OFR does is essential.”

Berner, who helped build the OFR after it was created as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, will step down at the end of the year. Republicans are pushing to kill the agency, calling it redundant and intrusive.

“Eliminating the OFR would actually improve risk management by having one less redundant bureaucracy,” contended Representative Ann Wagner.

OFR’s main role is to gather data across financial system in an effort to identify looming risks, and in turn hand those findings over to fellow regulators. In May, the Trump administration proposed slashing its budget 25 percent and reducing its staff by roughly a third.

Berner said Thursday his workers are facing “a great deal of uncertainty” over the agency’s future.

House lawmakers had passed legislation this year that would have eliminated the agency. No similar efforts have been taken up in the Senate.

Democrats have defended the agency, describing it as a critical tool to help identify future financial threats.

But complaints of a poor workplace culture and questions over some of its research have dogged the agency. Lawmakers pointed to complaints from the Government Accountability Office, which said Thursday the OFR had been slow to allow the watchdog to analyze its work dating back to 2014.

The GAO said the OFR had repeatedly delayed meetings, and said it also received a whistleblower complaint that OFR officials had manipulated data and misled GAO investigators. The watchdog halted its work studying the agency in 2016, citing an ongoing review by the Treasury Department’s Inspector General into the matter.

On Thursday, Berner said his agency “made every effort” to comply with GAO requests, and said there were “unfortunate delays in scheduling” due to staffing issues. (Reporting by Pete Schroeder; Editing by David Gregorio)

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