WASHINGTON -- "What's the difference between a terrorist and a bank examiner?" asked Rick Freer, director of compliance management at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

"A terrorist negotiates," he told delegates attending Monday's Consumer Bankers Association home equity lending conference here.

Faced with stricter and more complex regulations, bankers are looking to people like Mr. Freer for straightforward answers to questions like, "How can we best comply?" But he admits there are no easy answers.

While there may be gray areas in the law itself, a violation is a simply a violation, he said.

Says Discrimination Is Assumed

Banks are given an opportunity to present any mitigating circumstances, Mr. Freer said. But that doesn't always help. He used the example of a bank that is accused of lending discrimination by the Comptroller's Office. The institution, he said, is given time to explain why it rejected borrowers who appear to have been turned down on the basis of race, sex, or some other factor. If the bank is unable to provide a satisfactory answer, he said, the Comptroller's office assumes that discrimination has occurred and refers the case to either the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Justice Department.

The problem, said Mr. Freer, is that "as bankers, you don't have any more of an idea how to find illegal discrimination than we do."

So what can banks concentrate on to assure compliance with these laws in the future? Paul J. Schieber, co-chairman of the consumer financial services group at the Philadelphia law firm of Bank, Rome, Comisky & McCauley, said in an interview after Mr. Freer's speech that he believes there are several issues on which banks should focus to avoid getting to a nonnegotiation stage with their examiner. They are the following:

* Fair lending, an important issue with the Clinton administration. Mr. Schieber said that most banks are already following fair-lending laws correctly, but are putting their presentations together so poorly that examiners may think they are in violation.

* The Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, which requires those involved in certain residential mortgage transactions to provide specific disclosures to consumers. It also restricts loan referral fees. The law is complicated and involves a series of potential compliance problems, he said.

* The staple issues, Mr. Schieber stressed that while other areas might be hot, banks can't ignore laws like the Community Reinvestment Act.

* Labor and employment issues. Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Leave Act, and sexual harassment laws is becoming more important. Mr. Schieber said these issues, all hot now in the nonbanking world, are very difficult for banks to handle.

Mr Schieber also said that compliance costs, especially lawyer's fees, are unnecessarily skyrocketing and therefore creating another compliance cottage industry.

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