The "Monopoly Man" who photobombed the Equifax senate hearing

Last Updated Oct 5, 2017 4:50 PM EDT

Mr. Monopoly has gone to Washington -- and stolen the show.

The character surfaced at the Equifax (EFX) Senate hearing on Wednesday, grabbing attention by sitting just feet behind the credit reporting bureau's former CEO, Richard Smith. Rich Uncle Pennybags, as the Monopoly man mascot is known, delighted onlookers by twirling his mustache, wiping his brow with a $100 bill and polishing his monocle during the hearing, which was focused on investigating the massive data breach that exposed the personal data of more than 145 million Americans.

Just who was behind the appearance of Mr. Monopoly, also known as "Rich Uncle Pennybags," and why? Meet Amanda Werner, who works for Americans for Financial Reform, a nonprofit focused on improving the nation's financial system. Werner, a self-described rabble-rouser, said the idea of dressing like the game board icon stemmed from the group's work against so-called forced arbitration. That practice, which is in use at Equifax and many other companies in the U.S., bars consumers from pursuing their day in court and effectively insulates corporations from legal repercussions for their actions. 

"I wanted to show up at the hearing to point to their use of forced arbitration as a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card," Werner said. "Pretty much any time you sign a contract for a bank account, credit card often even for a job, they include these fine-print rip-off clauses that take away your 7th Amendment right for a day in court."

Werner said the idea for Mr. Monopoly -- a character reportedly based on banker J.P. Morgan -- was sparked by Americans for Financial Reform's "Get Out of Jail Free" card campaign, designed to call attention to how forced arbitration impacts consumers. Banks and financial companies say arbitration can be a quick and less expensive way to resolve disputes, although many consumer advocates disagree. Perhaps fittingly, the Monopoly board game was designed by Lizzie Magie to illustrate the evils of capitalism run amok

Werner, a former staffer for Senator Elizabeth Warren, D.-Massachusetts, wanted to pick a spot where Mr. Monopoly would be visible to cameras. 

"I know there are certain spots where you can sit behind witnesses," Werner said. "I've been very professional before when I've been on camera, controlling my facial movements. So I took a different approach: I tried to ham it up as much as I could. I tried to be especially entertaining when they talked about forced arbitration" by dropping the monocle, looking surprised and twirling the mustache.

Former Equifax CEO Richard Smith Testifies To Senate Banking Committee On Company's Recent Massive Data Breach

"Mr. Monopoly" photobombs former Equifax CEO Richard Smith as he prepares to testify before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill, Oct. 4, 2017.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

After disclosing the breach, Equifax came under fire for offering a free credit-monitoring service that also required customers to agree to sign away their right to sue the company. Following an outcry, Equifax dropped the forced arbitration clause. 

The issue is especially timely because the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, a federal agency created following the 2008 financial crisis, will soon ban financial companies and credit reporting bureaus from forcing consumers to sign arbitration clauses. Some Republicans lawmakers are trying to overturn the CFPB's rule.

Werner has been working on the arbitration issue for about two years, and was interviewed by CBS MoneyWatch last year about Daniel Dempsey, a man who pursued an arbitration case against Citibank and ended up spending more than $100,000 in legal fees. (Dempsey was later victorious.) 

Werner vowed to bring back Mr. Monopoly if lawmakers continue to try to overturn the CFPB's rule against forced arbitration. The character won't appear at Thursday's Equifax hearing in front of the House Financial Services Committee because the room is much smaller and it would be difficult to find a seat on camera. 

"I had heard from similar advocates that you can get away with wearing a hat, but you aren't allowed to hold up a sign," Werner said. "There were a couple times when I gingerly held up my 'Get Out of Jail Free' card, but I was careful not to hold it up too high. You can make whatever faces you want, and you can clean your monocle if you want."

Wiping your brow with a $100 bill is also allowed. Werner noted that it was a gag bill. 

Werner added, "I don't get paid enough to wipe my forehead with a real $100 bill."