Consumer activists who have been clamoring for months for a meeting with Citigroup Inc. executive committee chairman Robert Rubin have set a Thursday deadline and are threatening to step up their protests and lobbying efforts if their request is not met.
The activists say they are frustrated and even bewildered at the deaf ear they say Citi has turned toward them - and add that their patience with the company and admiration for the former Treasury secretary are wearing thin. "I've met with Rubin several times when he was secretary of Treasury, and now, all of a sudden, I can't get a call from him," said Gale Cincotta, chairwoman of National Peoples Action, a national coalition of hundreds of consumer groups. "He could have gone anywhere, done anything. Is it worth the money to lose all that standing that he had?"
But what could be a public relations nightmare for Citi has thus far sparked little public outcry. An effort two weeks ago by activists to shut down Citibank or affiliated branches in 10 cities produced little more than calls to local police agencies.
Indeed, the investigation of a 1998 money laundering case involving Citibank accounts has gotten much more attention than the activists' demand to meet with Mr. Rubin.
A Citigroup spokesman said officials have met with activists and are addressing their concerns. Though the company does not plan to meet soon with activists, "no one out there is going as far as we've gone to address predatory lending," the spokesman said.
Concern over the lending activities of Citigroup and its subsidiaries heated up last fall when the company announced plans to buy Associates First Capital Corp., the No. 2 subprime lender in the country. At the time the deal was announced, several activists called Associates "the worst predatory lender in America."
Citigroup, which is now the nation's largest subprime lender, tried during regulatory consideration of the deal to address concern over its growing participation in the subprime market. The company released a memorandum detailing lending policies and programs it would adopt after the purchase.
The Federal Deposit of Insurance Corp., which included Citi's list in its letter of approval for the deal, noted that it had gotten 153 public comments - which an FDIC spokesman said is "high" - either opposing the deal or recommending that conditions be imposed on it.
Activists say that, despite Citi's pledge to change, it is not going far enough to stop abusive lending or provide equal access to prime credit. They also charge that Citi officials abruptly cut off dialogue on the issues the day after the deal was approved, canceling a Dec. 12 meeting and declining to reschedule it.
Steven Blinn, principal of BlinnPR, a New York public relations firm, said Citigroup has put a great public face on the issue to this point and that the activists should give the company time to carry out its changes.
"Just the fact that Citigroup has met with them once and told them that they're looking into it and are taking the measures to deal with it, I think the activists should take Citigroup at its word," he said. "Once you start bad-mouthing a company as large as Citigroup, or you start protesting, it draws attention to the issue. But if you back a dog into a corner, it's going to bite you."
Nonetheless, activists are continuing their campaign. Jack Porter, a spokesman for the Central Illinois Organizing Project, a coalition of churches, said that though he has no evidence Citi officials are not acting on their pledges, he has no evidence that they are. Even if the company is complying, the promises do not cover all the issues about which activists are concerned, he said.
"We were most distressed about the huge disparity of the subprime lending available in the areas we represent and the narrow access to prime products from Citibank branches," he said.
CitiFinancial and Associates have branches in about 48 states, and there are Citibank branches in only about a dozen cities, Mr. Porter said. "The way both the Associates and CitiFinancial have been operated are not acceptable under any circumstances because they have been exploiting people as much as helping them."
The Citi spokesman said the contention that the company should give nationwide branch access to its prime products is "specious."
According to one source, a Citi official said at a meeting last November in Chicago that it "isn't our business model" to open Citibank branches in areas covered by Associates and CitiFinancial.
Ms. Cincotta said Citi's response is "a sad statement on what's happening with banking in the United States. By buying the Associates, they're saying that only a few people in the United States are worthy of a good loan."
The Citi spokesman said the company is running a test "refer up" program in four states in which subprime customers with good credit histories are offered prime loan products. "Our goal is to make sure that the referral program works well and then we would implement it nationwide," he said.
However, activists say they worry that Citi will offer qualifying borrowers only a 1-800 number, instead of employees in the subprime branches to help with prime loans.
With Thursday's deadline looming, the chances of activists' getting a sit-down with Mr. Rubin seem remote. Nonetheless, activists say they are hoping that the liberal-leaning executive will come around and offer them an olive branch.
"We'll have to figure out some other way to get his attention," Mr. Porter said. "We assume he is a very bright man, and he has shown a good heart. We just hope that if we get his attention he can make good things happen - but so far, we haven't had much luck."
From Our Archive