ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- After one year on the job, National Credit Union Administration Chairman Norman E. D'Amours has shown everyone who's boss.
Since being sworn into office Nov. 24, 1993, Mr. D'Amours has gone head-to-head with the industry's most powerful trade group, questioned whether credit unions discriminate, fired potshots at a fellow regulator, and shaken up the agency's staff.
But in an interview Mr. D'Amours said his biggest accomplishment has been defending the industry against attacks from Capitol Hill, where credit unions' investments and lending received an unusual amount of attention this year.
"We came in here facing a Congress with a punitive frame of mind and I think the actions we have taken thus far have had the effect of assuring Congress such actions weren't necessary," he said.
"We defanged a pretty big tiger."
Ken Robinson, president of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, agrees with this assessment.
"If you look at the bottom line, he's done a good job," Mr. Robinson said. "D'Amours conveyed to Congress a confidence that he was taking care of the situation."
Mr. D'Amours' first major challenge developed in January, when news surfaced that U.S. Central Credit Union had invested $255 million in a troubled Spanish bank.
"It raised safety-and-soundness concerns at the agency," Mr. D'Amours said. Specific worries included "the availability of information to the agency from Central and the level of examination performed by the agency."
He immediately ordered a review of corporate credit unions and followed it with a moratorium on foreign investments.
The international investment raised eyebrows in Congress, where lawmakers view credit unions as mom 'n' pop shops, not multi-billion dollar institutions. House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez launched an investigation of corporates, questioning the competence of NCUA's supervision and whether credit union dollars should go overseas.
Mr. D'Amours said the agency protected the industry from congressional intervention by acting swiftly and approving a highly controversial regulation that severs shared management between corporates and the Credit Union National Association.
In fact, during a hearing Rep. Gonzalez referred to NCUA as "an ideal regulator."
CUNA, meanwhile, fiercely opposed the rule, organized a letter-writing campaign against it, and has threatened to sue over it.
The chairman's tough line against CUNA contrasts sharply with earlier speculation that he might coddle the association. After all, he lobbied occasionally for the Madison, Wis., trade group since he left Congress in 1985 as a representative from New Hampshire.
Although Mr. D'Amours said he enjoys working with credit union people, it's clear he was frustrated and angered by CUNA's opposition. He tries to be philosophical about it.
"Whenever you try to bring about change, there's always a constituency that feels threatened," he said.
NCUA is not done with corporates either. Proposals addressing capital and investment powers' of corporates will be a top priority for next year, Mr. D'Amours said.
Mr. D'Amours also stirred up the industry by tackling a hot-button issue -- fair lending.
In February, Mr. D'Amours sent examiners into 42 credit unions with Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data suggesting they were discriminating. The probe failed to discover any evidence of overt bias.
"We did it because serious questions were raised by the HMDA data as to whether or not there might be discrimination in loan denials by credit unions," Mr. D'Amours. "Those kinds of questions can't be ignored."
Recently released 1993 HMDA data for credit unions showed only marginal improvement, but the agency won't conduct another round of examinations.
"We're not going to run the traps everytime" new data is released, he said.
The industry's HMDA data showing was one reason Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy 2d came out in favor of extending the Community Reinvestment Act to credit unions.
Credit unions had griped about the NCUA's probe, but its positive results helped them at a hearing the Massachusetts Democrat held in September. Trade groups introduced the agency's report as evidence the industry wasn't discriminating and shouldn't be brought under CRA.
The Republican takeover of Congress is expected to derail Rep. Kennedy's effort.
While the lawmaker's moves terrified some credit unions, Mr. D'Amours claimed he was never fazed.
"I think Kennedy was lone-wolfing it," Mr. D'Amours said. "I don't think he ever had much support, even on" the subcommittee for consumer credit and insurance, which Rep. Kennedy chairs.
The inaugural year of Mr. D'Amours term also hosted the first credit union charter conversion application.
NCUA has placed that institution, and another in the process of applying for a mutual savings bank charter, under regulatory scrutiny.
Mr. D'Amours excoriated the Office of Thrift Supervision for casing restrictions on credit union conversions to thrifts.
"I don't really know if it is proper for an agency, which the administration and others plan to merge out of existence, to be seeking to expand its turf," he said in September.
"The last time I checked many thrifts, especially the state charters, were trying to escape OTS because it was a very expensive and cumbersome agency."
Another priority for Mr. D'Amours has been urging credit unions to focus on their original mission of lending to people of small means, as outlined in the Federal Credit Union Act of 1934. Mr. D'Amours has pushed credit unions to take more lending risks and has told examiners to back off on strict enforcement of capital and delinquency ratios.
He has blasted some in the industry for emphasizing investments rather than loans with the refrain, "We're credit unions, not investment unions." Mr. D'Amours also has told officials that low loan-to-asset ratios might be questioned during examinations.
"A question I get from Congress is are credit unions fulfilling their mission of lending to people of small means," he said. "If Congress senses they're not, they'll lose congressional support.
If Congress begins to think that credit unions aren't unique institutions, they'll lose their benefits."
Also next year the regulator plans to tinker with the Camel rating system to make it more flexible and encourage lending, Mr. D'Amours said. Camel grades credit unions according to capital, assets, management, earnings and liquidity.
The changing of the guard has been felt throughout the agency.
Following the Clinton administration's directive of streamlining government, The NCUA's 1995 budget of $92.7 million represents the smallest increase -- 0.8% -- in 10 years. It also cuts the agency's roster to 944 employees, down from 978.
The relatively lean budget allowed the agency to cut the operating fee charged to credit unions. The 1995 assessment rate was reduced 7.3%.
More cuts are coming.
"I don't have any numerical targets," Mr. D'Amours said. "The only target is to make sure we match our resources to our needs."
Mr. D'Amours also has reshuffled some of the agency's key personnel.
The biggest shakeup was the demotion in August of Director of Examination and Insurance D. Michael Riley to a regional director post. Mr. Riley quit a few weeks later.
Mr. Riley's departure represents a dramatic break with the past. Under previous NCUA Chairman Roger Jepsen, Mr. Riley was "god" at the agency, industry sources said.
Karl Hoyle, the agency's executive director, has replaced Mr. Riley as the staff member with the chairman's ear.
Also, sources say Mr. D'Amours style is more frenetic than the laid-back Mr. Jepsen.
"He's got a different style than we're used to," Mr. Robinson said. "He moves quicker and he takes dramatic steps."
No more major staff shakeups are planned, Mr. D'Amours said.
Whatever happens next year, Mr. D'Amours' operating principles will remain the same.
"I'm interested in maintaining the safety and soundness of the credit union system and the long-range viability of that system," he said.