The fallout from a bankrupt, and apparently crooked, pension advisory firm has ensnared at least two Southern California community banks.

CommerceBancorp, a capitalpoor Newport Beach community bank, was forced to postpone indefinitely a much-needed offering of $15 million in stock this week because of the controversy. The bank will likely be subject to a federal regulatory takeover if the capital is not raised, management said.

CommerceBancorp's problems stem in part from its relationship with First Pension Corp., an Orange County firm that filed for bankruptcy in April amid allegations of fraud. CommerceBancorp's subsidiary, CommerceBank, was a custodian between 1990 and 1993 of pension and IRA accounts administered by First Pension.

First Pension's principals have all agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges, according to press accounts, and the Securities and Exchange Commission investigators said as much as $26 million could have been stolen from 8,000 investors.

"I knew we could have faced an unnecessary liability," said Commerce chief executive Dale E. Walter. Mr. Walter said he became chief executive of the bank in early 1993, and soon thereafter resigned as custodian for First Pension's accounts.

"I had my concerns," he said of his decision. "But I wasn't aware of the hanky-panky that went on [at First Pension]."

Mr. Walter said that until a review of the bank's relationship with First Pension is completed and the potential liability is quantified, it would be improper to try to sell stock. He also said it is unlikely another bank would buy Commerce because of its ties to First Pension.

CommerceBank has $158 million of assets and a leverage capital ratio, on March 31, of 2.14%. A level below 2% could trigger provisions of the 1991 banking law.

Monarch Bank in Laguna Niguel, Calif., held IRA accounts for First Pension for 15 months until September of last year, according to E. Lynn Caswell, president.

"I wouldn't say that we are not concerned about potential liability," he said. "But the bottom line for us is that we did a thorough investigation. All our activities are accounted for and were proper."

Mr. Caswell said that since the First Pension situation blew up in April, he hired an outside auditor and legal team to assess the bank's liability, and no liability turned up.

CommerceBancorp At a Glance

HEADQUARTERS: Newport Beach, Calif.

FOUNDED:

1979

CEO:

Dale E. Walter

ASSETS:

$188 million

ROA:

-5.46%

ROE:

-94.66%

BRANCHES:

Four

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