WASHINGTON -- Bankers went ballistic this summer when the Justice Department brought a novel lending discrimination case against Maryland's Chevy Chase Federal Savings Bank. The department, bankers argued, was holding the industry up to unfair standards.
But the man at the center of the storm -- Deval Patrick, assistant attorney general for civil rights -- has been unfazed by the outbursts. In fact, he sounds downright pleased with his prosecution.
"It's begun to have the desired effect of having banks examine themselves," he said in a recent interview.
Mr. Patrick, the government's top fair-lending lawyer, is no stranger to such controversy. As a lawyer in Boston in the early 1990s, he confronted banks that abandoned low-income, minority neighborhoods. His work there lead to several initiatives to boost bank involvement in Boston's inner city.
Now he's carrying out a similar effort on a national scale. And, just as in Boston, bankers are beginning to warm up to him. They were especially heartened in October when he invited representatives from five trade groups to meet with him at the Justice Department.
"Nobody asked us over there before, and that is to his credit," Consumer Bankers Association president Joe Belew said. "He is a very admirable guy. He is gracious and very intelligent."
"There is a disagreement with his policy," Independent Bankers Association of America executive vice president Kenneth Guenther said. "But, he is very intelligent and very committed and he does have an open door."
Still, Mr. Belew said, the industry is looking for a clear explanation from the Justice Department of what constitutes lending discrimination.
Mr. Patrick is trying to do just that. He has pledged to answer six detailed, fair-lending questions that the industry compiled. And, he's gone on a cross-country speaking tour to explain the Chevy Chase settlement.
In prosecuting Chevy Chase, the government argued that the institution had discriminated by failing to serve an entire community, even though it treated individual loan applicants fairly.
The new approach by Justice alarmed bankers, who argued that institutions cannot violate fair-lending laws unless they discriminate against specific individuals.
Industry representatives -- and even some critics -- argue that Justice's interpretation went too far.
Kenneth Thomas, a noted Community Reinvestment Act advocate who worked with Chevy Chase, said the government's prosecution of the Maryland thrift may have actually set back the cause of fair lending.
"I believe that is the point when the pendulum began swinging the other way because that is when Deval Patrick and his department decided to reach too far," Mr. Thomas said.
"There is no more controversial item on bankers' agenda than fair lending," added Mr. Guenther.
Mr. Patrick also has his supporters. "I think he has done a terrific job so far," National Community Reinvestment Coalition executive director John Taylor said. "The problem people are having is that prior people have not done such a good job."
Mr. Patrick jumped into fair lending with both feet in 1991 when he participated in cases questioning high-interest, bank-backed home improvement loans.
Contractors, looking for work in low-income areas, secured financing that carried monthly payments that many homeowners couldn't afford. The contractors, accused of misleading the borrowers, often used bank-supplied contracts and pamphlets to explain the loans. Borrowers soon defaulted, causing banks to threaten foreclosure proceedings.
Mr. Patrick's role, all parties agree, came in two stages. Part one began when he sued BayBanks Inc. on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Lawyer's Committee.
BayBanks Vice Chairman Richard Pollard, who eventually settled the case, said Mr. Patrick understood that the bank was not trying to injure the community when it lent money at the request of contractors.
"Instead of saying, 'You are wrong, you did it badly,' he said, 'I understand your position, let's see if we can work out a compromise.'"
That didn't mean Mr. Patrick backed off, he said. "He stood firm on his position, but it wasn't irrational," Mr. Pollard said. "It wasn't unreasonable. It was a businessman's approach."
Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger called it a "precedent-setting" settlement that helped the state resolve the other cases. Mr. Patrick didn't abandon the case after the parties settled for $11 million in compensation and home repairs, Lawyers Committee executive director Ozell Hudson Jr. said. "Deval personally went out into the community and inspected the work for the named individual home owners to make sure the work met the client's satisfaction," Mr. Hudson said. "That's the personal touch."
Mr. Patrick's second role came when he arbitrated claims against U.S. Trust, which had turned to Mr. Patrick despite his advocacy role in the BayBanks case.
"We wanted to select an arbitrator who was fair and reasonable and even handed," UST Corp. general counsel Eric R. Fischer said. "We were very impressed with him and we agreed to use him. He was fair in all ways."
Mr. Patrick reviewed particular cases to determine, what, if any, remedy to offer. "His work in these cases, which did not receive much publicity at the time, earned him considerable praise from both sides of the battle," Mr. Fischer said.
The similarity between the second-mortgage cases and Chevy Chase -- both involved the failure of banks to serve inner-city areas -- has not gone unnoticed in Boston.
"What he understood was that when you cut off credit from a community, not only do you deprive people of the American dream of homeownership, but you put people at the hands of loan sharks that happen to be financed by some of the major banks in this country," said Bruce Marks, executive director of Boston's Union Neighborhood Assistance Corp. "He understands that and he understood it more through the second-mortgage scam."
The second-mortgage scams lead the banks to provide $50 million in discounted mortgage, small business, and home improvement loans. While Boston-based bankers and activists said the experience in Massachusetts must have affected Mr. Patrick's views, the assistant attorney general prefers to avoid the question.
But, after persistent questioning, he did concede that the experiences are "in the back of my mind."
Mr. Patrick grew up near the Robert Taylor Housing Projects on Chicago's South Side, an area devoid of banks. He escaped from the community after a seventh-grade teacher secured a scholarship to Milton Academy in Massachusetts for him.
After graduation, he attended Harvard College, working during one summer in the loan officer training program at Chemical Bank. Mr. Patrick never entered banking, however. He chose Harvard Law School, and then nabbed a highly sought clerkship with Judge Stephen Reinhardt, one of the more liberal and respected members of the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals in Los Angeles.
The judge said he vividly recalls Mr. Patrick's ability to deal calmly with people with whom he disagreed, a trait that nearly everyone who has met him recounts. "I'm not always the easiest person," Judge Reinhardt said. "But, he handled me well."
Assistant attorney general for civil rights
* Milton Academy, 1974
* Harvard College, 1978
* Harvard Law School, 1982
* Clerk to Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals, 1982
* NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, staff attorney, 1984
* Hill & Barolow law firm, partner, 1986
* Represented Desiree Washington in her 1992 sexual-assault suit against boxer Mike Tyson
* Prosecuted Chevy Chase Federal Savings Bank for loan discrimination
* Married to Diane Bemus Patrick; two daughters