WASHINGTON -- The American Bankers Association hired one of the country's top law firms Monday to investigate the government's fair-lending enforcement efforts.

Lawyers at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom will advise the ABA on whether government is properly interpreting the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, ABA president Donald G. Ogilvie said.

"Our goal is to obtain the best possible legal advice on an extremely important issue," Mr. Ogilvie said in a prepared statement. "The lines are being redrawn by the government to the point that the road map is now virtually unreadable."

The Departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development have used fair-lending laws during the past year to pressure banks to expand their presence in underserved parts of their communities, rather than to just prevent actual cases of discrimination.

Mr. Ogilvie said the association would use the information to determine how it can best help the industry defend itself against more suits.

But, the ABA has not hired the firm to actually defend a particular case. "We are not being asked to undertake litigation," said William J. Sweet Jr., a lawyer at Skadden Arps. "We are asked to interpret the law."

"This is not a fight fund," added Andrew Sandler, another Skadden Arps lawyer. "It's the policy debate."

Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin declined to comment on the ABA action.

Skadden, Arps is widely considered to be one of the top fair-lending defense firms, having represented Shawmut National Bank and Chevy Chase Federal Savings Bank in their battles with the Justice Department.

The firm also represents Barnett Banks Inc., which the Justice Department is investigating.

The firm will present its findings to the ABA at an executive board meeting in the middle of December, Mr. Sandler said. The lawyers will concentrate on what the laws mean, rather than looking at particular cases, he said.

The ABA's efforts are similar to legal reviews that government agencies are undertaking. For example, HUD has hired a former federal prosecutor to review its fair-lending rules.

The ABA announcement comes two weeks after the Savings and Community Bankers of America presented their own plan to create a $100,000 fair-lending legal defense fund to help an institution fight the Justice Department.

Kenneth H. Thomas, who is writing about the Chevy Chase case for a revised version of his fair-lending book, said the ABA's and SCBA's efforts may be coming too late. "I wish all of this would have been done before Chevy Chase because then they would have had a chance to slow DOJ down," he said.

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