Comptroller of the Currency Eugene A. Ludwig took a risk and it paid off big this week.
Yanked into the national spotlight Saturday when The Washington Post and The New York Times featured front-page stories about a meeting President Clinton held with bankers last year, Mr. Ludwig defied the White House and said he never should have been invited.
The comptroller's assertiveness paid off this week when White House officials retracted their position that there was nothing wrong with having a regulator at an event sponsored by the Democratic National Committee.
In fact, President Clinton is now backing Mr. Ludwig, saying at a press conference Tuesday that the comptroller "should have been told who was sponsoring it, and it would have been better had he not come."
White House officials have repeatedly said that participants at the meetings were not obligated to contribute to the president's campaign, and representatives of the bankers in attendance said donations were not discussed.
Still, President Clinton's campaign attracted more than $373,000 from the 17 banks represented at the meeting. Bob Dole only got $222,000 from the institutions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Mr. Ludwig is now being praised for his willingness to voice his opinion, even though it meant disagreeing with the White House.
"He's too intelligent a man to compromise the affairs of his office with a political endeavor," said O. Jay Tomson, chairman of First Citizens National Bank, Mason City, Iowa. "He had the backbone and personal fortitude to stand up and say what he believed, and that indicates how he feels about the independence of his office."
"Gene has handled this extremely well, and now the president has stepped up and backed him," said former comptroller Robert L. Clarke, who is now a senior partner with Bracewell & Patterson law firm.
"Ludwig is straight arrow," added James McLaughlin, the American Bankers Association's director of regulatory and trust affairs. "He would never put himself in that position."
Echoing a number of other bankers, Mr. Tomson said he was invited by the White House public liaison's office and was told only that the president and financial services executives would be there.
"We talked about banking legislation, not fund-raising," he said. "This whole thing has been blown out of proportion."
"No fund-raising activities were discussed and there was no discussion of issues related to the specific institutions at the meeting," added James Mahoney, a Fleet Financial Group spokesman. "We focused on major policy issues facing the country, such as the balanced budget, and financial services industry issues."
Still, the controversy is not over. Political fund-raising is a hot story, with some observers labeling the controversy "coffeegate." Reporters are requesting Mr. Ludwig's phone and meeting logs. In addition, Congress is investigating the May 13 meeting.
The OCC is expected to deliver to the House Banking general oversight and investigations subcommittee documents related to the meeting by Feb. 7. Rep. Spencer Bachus, the panel's chairman, had set a deadline of Friday, but the OCC is unable to comply because Mr. Ludwig is out of the country, a spokeswoman said.
In a Jan. 27 letter, the Alabama Republican asked for an agenda of the May 13 meeting, a copy of the invitation, and a list of any other OCC employees who attended. Rep. Bachus also asked Mr. Ludwig to answer several questions and provide details of recent communications with party fund- raisers.