The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which seized Cleveland's faltering AmTrust Bank late last year, is seeking more than a half-billion dollars from the failed thrift's corporate parent in a dispute the agency says is of "critical importance" to the nation's taxpayers.

The FDIC says AmTrust Financial Corp. owes it at least $518.6 million, according to a claim filed Thursday against the holding company in its bankruptcy case. That amount is equal to the gap between how much capital the bank was required to have and what it actually had on hand when it was seized by regulators.

The FDIC, the federal agency charged with managing the receiverships of failed banking institutions, says AmTrust's holding company in recent years made numerous commitments to regulators to shore up the bank's capital. It's now going after the bank's parent for those funds in a dispute with the parent has "implications far beyond" the failure of the Ohio bank.

"The resolution of this case is of critical importance to the FDIC and the taxpayers of the United States because the proceedings directly involve the FDIC's authority and obligation to hold bank holding companies accountable for the commitments they make to regulators to maintain the capital of the banks they own and control," lawyers for the FDIC said Thursday in court papers.

AmTrust Financial has disputed the validity of the FDIC's claim but says the "mere threat" of it presents a "clear and substantial" obstacle to its ability to file a reorganization plan.

Bankruptcy law allows judges to estimate a claim under certain circumstances, for instance when the value of the claim hasn't been determined or when the claim is based the occurrence of an event in the future. Amtrust Financial had asked Judge Pat E. Morgenstern-Clarren of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Cleveland to estimate the claim at $0.00 and to disallow it in its entirety.

The FDIC says AmTrust Bank's failure will cost its deposit-insurance fund about $2 billion. The agency, by filing a formal claim for $518.6 million against the holding company, is seeking to head off AmTrust's bid to have a bankruptcy judge estimate its claim.

Instead, the agency is asking a U.S. District Court judge to decide the issue. It also wants that judge to decide whether its claim against the bank's parent company is entitled to immediate payment.

Lawyers for the FDIC say the case will determine whether it "can mitigate losses caused by the current epidemic of bank failures," by recovering against the assets of holding companies or whether taxpayers "who have already been forced to, in substance, bail out AmTrust Bank" will be stuck with the losses.

AmTrust Financial filed for Chapter 11 protection on Nov. 30, 2009. The company's bank unit and its 66 branches in Florida, Ohio and Arizona weren't part of the Chapter 11 filing.

But several days later, regulators seized the thrift and sold its assets to New York Community Bancorp Inc., and the FDIC was named receiver of the AmTrust Bank.

The seizure of AmTrust's thrift, one of about 140 banks regulators closed in 2009, represented one of the largest bank or financial company failures of last year. AmTrust's parent company blamed its financial woes on the collapse of the real-estate bubble and the resulting downturns in housing and construction, which had battered its investments in land development and home loans.

Founded in Cleveland in 1889 and formerly known as Ohio Savings Financial Corp., AmTrust and its subsidiaries listed assets of $11.7 billion and debts of $11.5 billion in court papers. AmTrust, whose holdings also include interests in real estate and insurance, employed some 1,700 people.

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