WASHINGTON -- Tucked inside the cover of the book he wrote, Kenneth H. Thomas keeps some his most treasured mementoes: letters from Washington hotshots.
The letters -- neatly stacked together, folded in half and bound with a rubber band -- are brief thank-yous for his book, Community Reinvestment Performance. There's one from Attorney General Janet Reno and another from House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez.
There's even a handwritten card from Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros.
But his favorite, the one he displays with the greatest glee, comes from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. The note comprises just two sentences -- a 14 words in all. Its meatiest sentiment reads, "It was most thoughtful."
Calls Greenspan 'CRA Bad Guy'
Mr. Thomas doesn't seem to care that the letter demonstrates little warmth, interest, or gratitude. He's overjoyed. He has heard from "our nation's second most powerful man" -- and the author's favorite enemy.
The Miami-based expert on the Community Reinvestment Act passionately hates the Fed. He trashes the agency with the excitement of a hyperactive kid.
He calls Mr. Greenspan a "CRA bad guy." He ranks the agency as one of the law's "three biggest enemies" -- the others being the Independent Bankers Association of America and the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. A sizable chunk of his 1993 book -- the one he gave Mr. Greenspan -- lambastes the Fed for "undermining" the CRA through lax enforcement.
With all these attacks, Mr. Thomas has grown into one of the Fed's most enthusiastic critics.
Mr. Thomas has bright eyes and Groucho eyebrows. A tireless self-promoter with inexhaustible energy, he's been known to talk himself hoarse. While his background includes work in academia, bank consulting, and public advocacy, he resists allegiance to any of the three.
"Basically, I'm independent," he said. "I don't have to agree or disagree with anyone, I can do whatever I want, and say my piece."
The one-man lobby compares himself to an even bigger thorn in the Fed's side -- Rep. Gonzalez.
Must Create Own Forum
Just as the Texas Democrat has embarrassed the central bank into growing more open about monetary policy, Mr. Thomas wants his banter to force a little light on the agency's regulatory side. But the lawmaker has the floor of Congress as a forum; Mr. Thomas says he's got to create his own.
"The point is, when you're going after a major change -- at the second most powerful institution in the government -- you got to go after it strong," he said. "They're so independent and unaccountable, that's the only way you can get to them."
The Fed is used to being hounded by public advocates, who believe it has failed to force banks to live up to CRA's mandate: serving the needs of their entire communities, including low-income neighborhoods.
Highly Personal Level
But Mr. Thomas has taken his cause to a highly personal level, unabashedly attacking longtime Fed officials. And he has broadcast his complaints loudly.
A Fed spokesman declined to comment to Mr. Thomas or his complaints about the agency. But at the very least, the Floridian has ruffled some feathers there.
He likes to tell a story about a recent speech he gave in Washington, where he recited to community activists his litany of complaints about the Fed. Griffith Garwood, the Fed's top consumer compliance official, was in the audience.
After the speech, Mr. Garwood approached Mr. Thomas to defend the agency. Observers say their exchange was heated and angry. Mr. Thomas says it "quickly deteriorated into an after-school shouting brawl."
He also wrote a nine-page narrative of the exchange for this paper, and retold it to a Miami business publication, which wrote about the "rumble."
The consultant was later invited to a meeting of the Fed's 12 district community affairs directors, to hash out some of his complaints. But when the officials denied his request that a Miami reporter join him at the meeting, he refused.
"I wanted to explain to these community affairs officers how, up on top, they're not getting support," he said. "How would you like to work for an agency where you're supposed to be doing all this good for CRA and then your bosses at the board level are saying these nasty things about CRA? They tried to kill it from day one, and that's a matter of record."
Mr. Thomas lived in "classic inner-city" area of his Detroit until age 10, when his family moved to Miami. He's lived in Florida since then, except for when he was working on his MA and PhD at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.
He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Florida and an MBA from the University of Miami.
During college, Mr. Thomas played in a band -- a cross between the Beatles and The Association, he says. The group's name? Leaves of Grass.
"You know -- Walt Whitman," he said, referring to the author of the famous poem. "We were the top group in Florida ... I actually recorded five albums.
"I had a chance to go to Woodstock in '69, that [not going] was one of my great regrets in life," he added.
In addition to his academic work that year, Mr. Thomas says, he began consulting for banks in Miami. Initially he focused on merger analysis, profitability studies, and branching and delivery systems.
He says he has advised more than 100 banks in his 25-year-career, but wouldn't name any.
"There's no doubt that I could do a lot more consulting if I wanted to, and I could earn any type of income I wanted to as a consultant," he said. "But I've turned down a lot of jobs. I'm not interested in a lot of jobs."
After many trips to Washington, Mr. Thomas has made some friends, even among top regulators. He bragged that on a recent visit, he dropped in on Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig unannounced. He ended up chatting with Mr. Ludwig and a few top aides for more than an hour, he said.
Mr. Thomas' supporters -- mostly community activists -- say his work has generated useful insights about how poorly regulators have done in enforcing the CRA. After reading thousands of exam reports and writing a 515-page book on the subject, he has become an authority on the law, they say.
"I think there's a fresh, added value that he brings," said John Taylor, executive director of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. "There's insights and information we've gotten from him that we didn't get anywhere else."
But there are more than a few people who privately say Mr. Thomas is full of hot air. Some question his credentials, say he's prone to exaggerate and wonder whether he's gained anyone's ear. Mention of his name sometimes causes eyes to roll and heads to shake.
Mr. Thomas doesn't seem to care. He's moving breathlessly along on his one-man crusade against the Fed, knocking on doors all about Washington, talking to anyone who will stop and listen.
When his book was released last year, Mr. Thomas blanketed the city with copies. He says he visited the offices of all 51 members of the House Banking Committee and 19 members of the Senate Banking Committee.
The only office he couldn't get into was that of his own senator, Florida Republican Connie Mack.
"I call him Connie Bank," Mr. Thomas said. "Here I could walk in and see Gene Ludwig, I could meet Greenspan, but I cannot see my own senator.
"I'm printing something in the [Miami] Herald about that."