By forcing a Georgia thrift to pay a $1 million penalty and reform its lending practices, the Justice Department put banks and other thrifts on notice that discrimination cases will receive greater scrutiny,

"The industry is heading toward an iceberg here, and the Decatur case is just the tip," said Jo Ann S. Barefoot, a Columbus, Ohio-based consultant.

Decatur Federal Savings and Loan Association was accused of discriminating against minority mortgage applicants. The $2.7 billion-asset thrift said it settled the case through a consent decree to avoid "protracted and costly litigation."

Recent revisions in federal banking law require regulatory agencies to refer discrimination complaints to the Justice Department. "We are looking at other matters of this nature across the country, and we developed a model with the express intent of using it again," a department spokesman said.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency said earlier this year that it was investigating 266 banks with wide disparities in mortgage approvals in data filed under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act.

Kenneth H. Thomas, a Miami-based consultant, warned that banks can expect a new round of scrutiny in the next month or so when federal regulators release the HMDA data for 1991.

Decatur Federal's 1990 HMDA report showed that blacks were rejected for mortgage loans 3.3 times more than whites, compared with 2.2 times for all Atlanta lenders, according to an American Banker study.

Difficulty with Statistics

The problem for banks, according to Ms. Barefoot, is that "statistics showing a lack of lending toward certain groups don't prove anything." That's because increased marketing efforts in minority communities often lead to more rejections.

Among the many accusations in the consent decree is a charge that Decatur avoided making Veterans Administration and Federal Housing Administration loans, which the Justice Department said have "special appeal to black borrowers." Ms. Barefoot noted that black community groups have complained about banks' steering them to VA and FHA loans and away from conventional mortgages.

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