WASHINGTON - Having completed their high-profile prosecutions of thrift executives completed, federal agents are tackling fewer cases - but bigger ones.

Richard Stearns, deputy chief counsel for enforcement with the Office of Thrift Supervision, said criminal referrals from his agency have dropped steadily over the last three years, from 7,700 cases in 1992 to 7,300 in 1994.

But the number cases involving more than $100,000 in fraud have more than doubled, from 750 in 1992 to 1,750 last year, he said.

Mr. Stearns spoke at the ninth annual Federal Enforcement Institute, held at Georgetown University Law Center last week.

Despite the rise in the number of major cases, federal prosecutors may be facing some lean years.

"We can assume that we're looking at a future when resources will be in short supply," said John Arterberry, a Justice Department lawyer. "But one area where you will not see any deficits is in federal priorities. We're going to see that list of priorities grow beyond economic crime to include street crime, violent crime, drug crime.

"All these priorities are pulling at a limited pool of resources."

According to Mr. Arterberry, federal agents are concentrating on:

*Derivatives fraud engineered by brokers who peddle increasingly complex, high-risk products to unsuspecting customers.

*Check fraud concentrated in organized rings that use advanced technology to bilk banks and their customers out of $2 billion to $6 billion each year.

*Mortgage fraud perpetrated by brokers and financial advisers who falsify the creditworthiness of customers, ultimately causing $60 billion in annual losses to lenders.

The ever-expanding list of federal priorities will put a strain on Justice Department officials and prosecutors, who will have to pursue gangsters and drug dealers along with check forgers. But the panelists insisted that federal enforcement will be effective.

"We have a pool of experienced prosecutors who learned how to prosecute cases in a regulated environment," Mr. Arterberry said.

Mr. Serb writes for the Medill News Service.

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