WASHINGTON - Trade associations are accusing the chairman of credit unions' regulatory body of making statements to reporters that undermine the industry's safety and soundness.

The industry's largest trade group blames National Credit Union Administration chief Norman E. D'Amours for a July 21 article in USA Today headlined "Could Industry be Repeating S&L Crisis?"

A July 28 letter to Mr. D'Amours from Ralph S. Swoboda, president of the Credit Union National Association, presents the industry's most popular conspiracy theory: That the regulator is exaggerating dangers to justify harsh rules.

USA Today ran its article "after an interview in which you discussed corporate credit unions' capital adequacy, investment risks, and relationships with credit union trade associations," Mr. Swoboda wrote. "It was these issues that led USA Today to write a series of misleading stories suggesting that (credit unions) may be unsafe."

"Why would a regulator suggest that the industry it regulates is on the verge of a crisis?" Mr. Swoboda asked in the three-page letter. "Do you realize that while you're trying to use the press to promote your agenda, NCUA is undermining the public's confidence in the safest institutions in the U.S. financial system?"

Mr. D'Amours, known for being blunt and sometimes combative, was understated in his response.

"It is most unfortunate that (your) letter is based on facts that are in error or badly out of context," he wrote back July 31.

The exchange also caused some hand-wringing for Kenneth Robinson, president of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions.

"My overall feeling is that any time we wash our dirty linen in the public, it's not best for credit unions," Mr. Robinson said.

Noting that Mr. Swoboda's letter was forwarded to the congressional banking committees and President Clinton, Mr. Robinson said, "What are they going to think?"

CUNA and Mr. D'Amours have been on bad terms since last year, when the regulator passed a rule banning shared management between trade groups and the industry's liquidity centers.

Then, in April, the NCUA offered a proposal clamping down on corporates' capital and investments that was withdrawn after the agency was deluged with nearly 1,000 hostile comment letters.

Some in the industry grumble that Mr. D'Amours has been exaggerating or inventing dangers to advance his agenda, and to impress upon President Clinton that he is a tough regulator so as to secure another government appointment.

This theory began germinating in February, when The Wall Street Journal and mainstream press started covering the collapse of $1 billion-asset Capital Corporate Federal Credit Union. In the stories, Mr. D'Amours espoused a tough regulator attitude.

In June, The Wall Street Journal ran a story about unrealized investment losses at corporates based on Dec. 31, 1994, call report data. Because corporates' portfolios had improved since then, the story drew the ire of Richard M. Johnson, chief executive of Western Corporate Federal Credit Union.

In a June 22 letter to Wescorp's members, he suggested someone may have been behind the story.

"You have to wonder who is stirring up the media and providing such outdated information," Mr. Johnson wrote. "Can it be someone is creating problems to solve problems?"

Industry sources familiar with the story said he was referring to Mr. D'Amours, but Wescorp spokeswoman Margaret Blankers denied this.

"We wish we knew" who the someone was, she said. "We really don't know."

The conspiracy theories heated up late last month, thanks to two stories that appeared in USA Today. The July 21 story raised the blood pressure of industry executives. A story on July 26, citing Mr. D'Amours as saying that corporates had made millions of dollars in "improper payments" to credit union trade groups with which they shared management, didn't help.

In fact, in a July 28 letter to Mr. D'Amours, the California Credit Union League suggests that the regulator violated his own rules with statements attributed to him in the second USA Today story.

The CUNA affiliate's bone of contention: A statement by the regulator that corporates interlocked to state leagues had made loans to them that "weren't in the (corporate's) best financial interest."

According to the July 28 letter, the "statements violate the NCUA's duty to maintain good public relations with" credit unions, and "public allegations by the NCUA chairman that (payments) and loans to leagues are not in the best interest of corporate credit unions defame the leagues."

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