The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency took the first step Monday toward preempting a restrictive Rhode Island insurance statute.

"The Rhode Island law imposes a number of requirements upon financial institutions engaged in the solicitation and sale of insurance that differ from the requirements that apply to other insurance agents and agencies," the Comptroller's Office noted in a request for public comment.

Under federal law, the agency can override state laws when they significantly interfere with the powers granted to national banks by the National Bank Act. In some cases, the Comptroller's Office must first seek comments from the public. The comptroller used this power most recently when it voided a New Jersey lifeline banking law in 1992.

In a nine-page notice Monday, the Comptroller's Office said the Rhode Island law:

*Bars most bank employees from selling insurance.

*Requires banks to physically separate insurance sales from other banking operations.

*Prohibits the use of nonpublic customer information in marketing insurance.

The Financial Institutions Insurance Association asked the Comptroller's Office to override the state law in a Sept. 5 letter. The trade group argued that the Rhode Island law, enacted Aug. 8, significantly interferes with national banks' sales of insurance.

"This is an important step in FIIA's effort to nip this kind of restrictive state legislation in the bud," said Kathleen W. Collins, the group's Washington counsel. "We believe the OCC will find that these provisions were designed to interfere with banks competing to sell insurance products."

The Rhode Island law is a watered-down version of model legislation circulated in state capitals across the country by the Independent Insurance Agents of America.

Similar measures are expected to be considered this year in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, and Texas.

Philip S. Corwin, a partner at Federal Legislative Associates, said the OCC's move would send an important message to lawmakers in those states. "If Rhode Island doesn't pass muster, then stronger bills in other states won't stand a chance," he said.

Jeffrey A. Myers, a spokesman for the agents' association, argued that the Rhode Island law is needed to protect consumers.

"This is in no way, shape, or form an encumbrance on a bank's ability to provide insurance," Mr. Myers said. "The OCC should steer clear of that law because the Rhode Island legislature has done what it feels is best for its residents."

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