An Arkansas banker is suing the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for breach of contract for blocking his plan to buy subprime loans made to low-income and minority borrowers.
Damian Sinclair owns the controlling interest in the $30 million-asset Sinclair National Bank in Gravette, Ark., which he purchased for $2.7 million last Christmas eve. In twin complaints filed last month in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, Mr. Sinclair alleged that after approving his business plan in March, OCC officials began a systematic campaign of regulatory harassment that has prevented him from implementing it.
Warren L. Dennis, Mr. Sinclairs Washington, attorney, said the OCCs actions were motivated at least in part by prejudice.
Kevin Mukri, a spokesman for the agency, said the claim is without basis.
OCC policies promote equal respect for all and do not tolerate comments referring to racial bias or disrespecting any group, Mr. Mukri said. This matter is an issue of jurisdiction, and we do not believe the court has jurisdiction.
The suit alleges each time bank officials responded to one set of questions from the OCC, regulators raised new concerns, said Gerri R. Dolan, an accountant for the bank.
Since May 2000 [OCC] personnel have repeatedly retracted commitments to Sinclair National Bank and instead continue to raise the bar by requiring more information and posing further restrictions on the lending program as soon as [the bank] has complied with a request, Ms. Dolan said in an affidavit dated Oct. 19. It has become such a recurring theme that the [Dallas] office has effectively shut down the heart of the banks operations.
The suit also contends that OCC officials made disparaging remarks about the minority borrowers whose loans Sinclair National Bank wanted to buy. In court documents, John A. Bodnar, the deputy comptroller in charge of the OCCs Dallas office, was quoted as telling Mr. Sinclair that he did not want any of the banks for which he was responsible dealing with those kinds of people.
Mr. Bodnar declined to comment.
In addition, employees of Sinclair National Bank, and a finance company from which the bank planned to purchase subprime loans, swore in affidavits that other officials in OCCs Dallas regional office made insensitive remarks.
According to Corinne Elliott, a bank employee, one bank examiner who made an informal visit to Sinclair National Bank in April read aloud a list of names like Jose Cruz, Gonzalez, Shanteru Jones and Shawanda Juri and then stated in my presence, Doesnt anybody have normal names? Dont you lend to regular people?
Mr. Sinclair also declined to comment, referring questions to Mr. Dennis.
Under the leadership of Comptroller John D. Hawke, OCC has made the task of ensuring that all Americans have access to financial services, including subprime loans, a major priority. In a November 1999 interview with U.S. Banker magazine, Jeanne Engel, OCCs deputy comptroller for community affairs, called the job one of the agencys pillars.
That is what makes Sinclair National Bank v. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency so unusual, said Mr. Dennis.
This is a man-bites-dog case, he said. This is the agency that is supposed to be promoting fair lending.
But attorneys well versed in regulatory and fair-lending issues said the case was not as cut-and-dried as Mr. Dennis portrayed it.
Frank Bonaventure, a lawyer with Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver in Baltimore, said that bankers new to the industry are often surprised by the power federal regulators wield. Mr. Sinclair had no prior banking experience before taking control of Sinclair National.
Banking is one of the most highly regulated industries there is, Mr. Bonaventure said. It is not the same as running a normal business, because it involves funds that are regulated by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
When you are dealing with these areas of specialty lending, its not unusual for any regulator to be cautious, said Eugene Ludwig, the former Comptroller. But I can imagine the frustration someone new to bankings ground rules must feel.