WASHINGTON -- The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development said Tuesday that they will work together to combat discrimination in mortgage lending.

In an unusual example of interagency colLaboration, the agencies said they assigned a joint task force to develop anti-discrimination strategies and demonstrate the government's resolve to eradicate loan bias.

The working group was given 60 days to report back to Comptroller Eugene A. Ludwig and Secretary Henry G. Cisneros of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

|Full-Fledged Campaign'

"Discrimination in home mortgage lending has for too long been a back-burner issue," Mr. Cisneros said during a joint conference on mortgage bias. "I intend to wage a full-fledged campaign against lending discrimination."

"Discrimination in mortgage lending, whether by intent or effect, is not only wrong, it is a violation of the law," he added. "Recent studies indicate it is even more extensive and odious than we thought."

Mr. Cisneros' department and the national bank regulator will cooperate in several areas:

* HUD will share its expertise in pre-application testing, which will help the Comptroller's office in its own oversight of national banks.

* OCC will share its analysis of national banks' Home Mortgage Disclosure Act records, which HUD will use in testing for pre-application discrimination in three communities as part of its $1 million Fair Housing Initiatives Program. The Comptroller could go so far as to provide lists of suspect banks to HUD for scrutiny in the testing program.

* The task force will propose legislative initiatives to provide more effective oversight in lending discrimination.

* The group will develop a comprehensive definition of lending discrimination.

Stern Criticism

In his announcement Tuesday, Mr. Cisneros had some stern words for both the banking industry and its regulators.

Banks have long ignored the discriminatory elements in their lending, he said. "And most regulators have been less than aggressive" in correcting them. "The agencies have resisted basic reforms for decades."

Mr. Cisneros also said HUD "must share some of the blame. Fair-lending enforcement power has been underused, but we intend to correct that."

Emphasis on Testing

Testing will be an integral part of the effort. The secretary noted that as a board member of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, he learned about the effectiveness of testing programs.

"The existence of testing is a major deterrent force if and when it is done on a widespread basis," Mr. Cisneros said.

"The banking industry has expressed a willingness to cooperate, but translating that into operational practices bank by bank is another matter," he added. "Any objective observer would say we have a long way to go."

Era of Teamwork

The joint effort signals a new era of cooperation across government agencies. Many also see it as a sign that the Clinton administration intends to get tough on fair housing issues.

"This is wonderful news," said Sen. Donald W. Riegle, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. "It goes a long way toward coordinating the government's efforts to target how and where lending discrimination occurs and eradicate the practice once and for all."

"This is a signal of changing times," said Deepak Bhargava of the community group Acorn, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. "HUD has positioned itself to take a much more aggressive role in mortgage-lending discrimination and has a great deal of expertise in the enforcement areas, so it's an excellent idea for them to work together."

"It's exciting to see the collaboration of two highly energetic people in the administration," said Allen Fishbein, general counsel of the Center for Community Change. "I can understand why Mr. Ludwig would try to distance himself from the Federal Reserve and other regulators with their sorry track record.

"Clearly, the competition now among the bank regulators is to show who's got the best enforcement, and that's a 180-degree change from just a few months ago."

The other bank regulators were not invited to join HUD's task force, but Mr. Cisneros said they would be welcome to participate. He noted that while the Federal Reserve Board and HUD have not set up a formal effort, Fed chairman Alan Greenspan has said that if areas of cooperation arise, the two agencies "should, explore them."

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