Reacting to a recent court ruling that could force it to divest itself of most members, an Alaska credit union is planning to switch to a field of membership that would encompass the entire state.

In a letter to other credit unions in the state, Alaska USA Federal Credit Union president William B. Eckhardt said he plans to ask the National Credit Union Administration to let his institution switch its occupation-based charter to one based on the community it serves. In this case, the community would comprise anyone living in Alaska.

"Recent estimates are that Alaska USA has a current potential membership base in Alaska of over 700,000 individuals," Mr. Eckhardt wrote in the Sept. 12 letter. "Because of employer, association, and/or family overlap, Alaska USA's membership potential actually exceeds the total state population."

Mr. Eckhardt indicated that his plan was prompted by a July 30 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that could deal a serious blow to Alaska USA's current field of membership.

In that case, the court ruled that the NCUA overstepped its authority when it allowed AT&T Family Federal Credit Union in Winston-Salem, N.C., to accept workers in "select employee groups" - made up of employees at companies unrelated to AT&T - as members. Alaska USA, which was originally chartered to serve employees of military installations in Alaska, could be forced to divest itself of 2,800 select employee groups because of the ruling.

The Alaska USA plan did not sit well with bankers.

"This is just absurd," said Bill Sones, president of State Bank and Trust Co. in Brookhaven, Miss. "There's no way you can call every citizen of Alaska a member of one common bond.

"These large banks who call themselves credit unions are going to continue to flaunt their common bonds, hopefully until Congress does something to stop it," added Mr. Sones, who is president-elect of the Independent Bankers Association of America.

NCUA spokeswoman Lesia Bullock said it is "uncommon" for a federal credit union to request a field of membership that encompasses an entire state. However, she said that Alaska is unique because its population is spread sparsely across the state, making it difficult for credit unions to form.

"We have to decide if this is something that is in the best interest of their community," Ms. Bullock said. She estimated that the NCUA board will make a decision on the application by the end of February.

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