Stung by President Clinton's implication that it had discriminated against minority borrowers, Columbia National Inc. hit back Tuesday.
Chairman and chief executive David J. Gallitano accused the government of misrepresenting a routine agreement the Columbia, Md.-based mortgage bank had signed late last year with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"We are furious," Mr. Gallitano said. "All we did was sign an agreement pledging to do what we were already doing."
During an event Monday in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President Clinton said Columbia National had agreed to provide $6.5 billion in mortgages and loan assistance to 78,000 minority and low-income families. In a press release Tuesday, HUD promoted it as "the largest lending discrimination settlement in American history."
But Mr. Gallitano said HUD Inspector Gary Lacefield cleared Columbia National of bias accusations stemming from a 1997 mystery-shopping test conducted in Texas. At the end of that investigation, Columbia National signed an agreement to continue its existing minority-lending programs, Mr. Gallitano said. It did not agree to pay damages or to increase lending, he said.
Mr. Gallitano also disputed HUD's assertion that Columbia National "agreed to spend" nearly $500 million over five years to subsidize mortgages. "That is flat-out inaccurate," he said. That money will come from state and federal loan assistance programs, he said.
Mr. Lacefield did not returns calls, but HUD officials stood their ground. "HUD did what it was supposed to do," spokesman Peter Ragone said. After discrimination was alleged, the agency initiated an investigation and Columbia signed an agreement to resolve the allegations, he said.
"Under the agreement, Columbia committed billions of new dollars to a market that was previously inadequately tapped: low-income and minority borrowers," according to Mr. Ragone. "For anyone to claim that this is not a fair settlement to a serious civil rights allegation is just plain out outrageous."
But industry officials and fair-lending experts were critical of HUD on Tuesday.
"There are some people in the enforcement world, especially at HUD, who just start with the assumption that if you are in the for-profit mortgage lending business then you must be a racist," said Paul Mondor, senior director of regulatory affairs at the Mortgage Bankers Association.
Andrew L. Sandler, a partner in the Washington office of the Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom law firm, said this is at least the third instance where HUD has mischaracterized fair-lending settlements. Others involved Accubanc Mortgage Corp. and Temple-Inland Mortgage Corp., both of Dallas.
"None of these cases involved either HUD discrimination findings or multibillion-dollar settlements," he said. "They largely reflect lender undertakings to maintain or increase minority lending efforts."
That was the case for Temple-Inland, said J. Bradley Johnston, the company's general counsel. Though HUD has portrayed the deal as a fair- lending settlement, Mr. Johnston said the dispute "was never even referred to anyone for that type of finding."
Paul F. Hancock, the Justice Department's former top fair-lending cop, said these HUD settlements are distinct from the 13 lending bias cases brought by federal prosecutors. In those cases, the lenders paid damages for violating the fair-lending laws.
"This isn't a damages award," he said. "It is just what the bank will be lending in the next five years."
If it had a bias case against Columbia National, lawyers said HUD should have referred it to the Justice Department, which could sued to compensate minorities who did not receive credit.