WASHINGTON - Finally, people are listening to John J. Byrne.

A decade ago, few people did. Mr. Byrne, senior federal legislative counsel at the American Bankers Association, had to fight to open doors and get an audience with influential government officials.

But now, a medal from the Treasury Department on his wall and a long list of speaking engagements prove that times have changed. On topics ranging from money laundering to environmental liability, people want to hear what Mr. Byrne has to say.

Smiling and sounding like a man who feels the worst of his job is behind him, Mr. Byrne said the fight to get politicians and regulators to pay attention to bankers' concerns was a brutal one.

"There was a perception that banks didn't care to comply with any rules or regulations," Mr. Byrne said. "Congress was saying that we need more and more laws.

"People were saying that banks didn't care who these huge cash transactions were from as long as they came to their bank," he added. "They said banks didn't care if Drug Enforcement Agency agents got bullets in them fighting the people who put the money in."

But years in the trenches have made his fights easier to wage.

"The reason he's so accomplished is that he understands the banking and regulatory environment completely and can meld the two," said Herbert Bierne, deputy associate director of the Federal Reserve. "It all comes through experience."

Combining that experience with the Clinton administration's commitment to a partnership with the banking industry, victories have become more frequent.

For example, Mr. Byrne said new suspicious-activities reports, which could take effect by yearend, will have to be sent only to the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as Fincen, instead of several different agencies. Also, streamlined cash transaction report forms will be available in October, further easing the paperwork burden on banks.

Mr. Byrne said he expects that huge companies, like McDonald's or Wal- Mart, will be exempted from the reporting requirement because people know they are legitimate. He said the exemption should be finalized by yearend.

Fincen also clarified confusing terminology in new wire transfer rules earlier this month.

Winning on these fronts, Mr. Byrne said, "shows that we have gained respect."

Mr. Byrne also is an expert in the growing area of environmental regulation, as banks deal with the consequences of buildings or land they own being contaminated.

Currently, he is lobbying for passage of legislation that would lift liability from banks that have made loans for or own property but do not participate in its management.

He said he expects congressional action in early September, but said other issues threaten to bog the measure down. If lawmakers balk, Mr. Byrne said he would work to pass a separate bill, devoted solely to environmental liability.

Alfred Pollard, senior director at the Bankers Roundtable, said that Mr. Byrne's devotion is impressive considering that the duties were "just handed to him."

But being thrown into an issue is nothing new to Mr. Byrne. It happened to him with money laundering.

In 1985, the ABA recognized the need to address money-laundering regulations. Mr. Byrne said the issue didn't seem to fit in any specific category the ABA had, so it was handed to him and he ran with it.

In May, he won the Director's Medal for Exceptional Service from Fincen - the first ever for a private-sector person.

"It really just snowballed," Mr. Byrne said.

Mr. Pollard said Mr. Byrne's lobbying approach - fighting with facts - helped him earn respect and will make him a force in future issues.

"He comes at it from a mainly legal standpoint," Mr. Pollard said. "It's very difficult to butt heads with him, because he doesn't come at you with a political angle."

However, Mr. Byrne can hardly be called apolitical. The walls of his tidy office are crammed with pictures of the Kennedys.

He hosts a public access show called "Democratic Forum," on which Democrats give their views on a variety of issues.

Mr. Byrne ran for a state Assembly position in Virginia twice as a Democrat and lost. He won't rule out running again someday, but said he wants to spend more time with his four kids than he does on the campaign trail or speaking circuit.

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