Helen Howell resigned yesterday as director of the state Department of Financial Institutions, effective Feb. 25. An appointee of former...

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Helen Howell resigned yesterday as director of the state Department of Financial Institutions, effective Feb. 25.

An appointee of former Gov. Gary Locke, Howell was not popular with many of the companies whose regulation she oversaw for the past two and a half years, but she won supporters among consumer-advocacy groups for battling predatory lending and payday lending.

Howell waited until Gov. Christine Gregoire was ready to conduct interviews and select a new financial institutions director for her administration to formally resign, according to a department news release.

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“She has been a champion of Washington’s consumers in her role at DFI,” Gregoire said of Howell in the release.

Howell’s focus on consumer protection is precisely what aggravated some of the institutions her department regulated. Some have accused her of focusing more on consumer issues than the safety and soundness of the state’s financial industry.

“She focused more on consumer protection, and that probably should have been left up to the AG’s [Attorney General’s] Office,” said John Collins, president and executive director of the Washington Independent Community Bankers Association, a trade group of small banks based in the state.

Some consumer advocates will miss her.

“I recall her as being surprisingly pro-consumer,” said Bob Gnaizda, general counsel of the Greenlining Institute, a Berkeley, Calif.-based public policy and advocacy center that focuses on home lending and minority economic development. “She’s had a positive impact on predatory lending generally, and probably on Household (International) specifically.”

During Howell’s tenure, Washington state received more than $21 million in restitution for the state’s consumers as part of a $484 million nationwide predatory-lending settlement with Household International, now part of HSBC Holdings.

She also oversaw a television, radio and billboard campaign to educate consumers about predatory lending. The practice involves cheating homeowners by making them pay higher interest rates or fees than they normally would pay. Some predatory lending cases lead to foreclosure.

Before her current position, Howell served as Locke’s deputy chief of staff. An attorney and a Seattle native, Howell, 43, has not determined her next career move.

“She is considering joining a law firm or public affairs consulting firm, and possibly serving on a corporate board,” the department release said.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312