When Arleas Upton Kea was growing up in the small town of Schulenburg, Tex., she dreamed of becoming a lawyer.
Watching lawyers probe the Watergate scandal in televised congressional hearings hooked her. Ms. Kea - pronounced Key - got her law degree in 1982 from the University of Texas.
Ms. Kea, 39, became ombudsman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in June after working 11 years as a lawyer for the agency. Three of those years were spent chasing bankers who bilked their institutions.
Her new role required adjustments, she said. Initially, she said, it was difficult to resist taking an adversarial approach to problems. "My role is not to advocate for a particular position, but to work toward resolution," she said.
The job opened up in January when Carmen Sullivan, the agency's first ombudsman, was promoted to head the division of compliance and consumer affairs.
Ms. Kea oversees 68 people - 24 in Washington and the rest in the agency's five regional offices. In the first half of this year, her office logged 50,000 requests for information or help. Typically, these calls come from consumers with questions about deposit insurance or employees worried about downsizing.
Others come from bankers. She doesn't know how many but, whatever the total, she believes it isn't enough. "I really feel that many bankers don't know about this office or the services we can provide," she said.
The ombudsman's job is to provide answers for bankers who are confused about FDIC rules or policies, she said. She's been speaking to bankers throughout the country, inviting them to call her to ask questions or just vent, she said.
But she doesn't promise to solve all their problems. "I have no real authority," Ms. Kea said. "I rely on my credibility and power of persuasion."
For example, if a banker complains about a surly examiner, Ms. Kea and her staff will sort out what happened and recommend a solution. But it is up to the director of the appropriate division to take action, she said.
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency was the first agency to name an ombudsman, in 1993. The next year, Congress required all bank regulators to appoint ombudsmen. The FDIC, Federal Reserve Board, and Office of Thrift Supervision all did so, in 1995.
Ms. Kea's office does not deal with bank appeals of Camel ratings, compliance questions, Community Reinvestment Act grades, agency determinations of loan loss reserves, or classifications of assets.
Like the Fed and OTS, the FDIC has a separate process for resolving these disputes. Only the OCC lets its ombudsman hear these appeals and gives him the power to overrule agency decisions.
Ms. Kea does serve on the five-member committee that considers supervisory appeals. FDIC Vice Chairman Andrew C. "Skip" Hove is chairman of the panel, which also includes the directors of the agency's supervision and compliance divisions, and FDIC General Counsel William F. Kroener 3d.
Ms. Kea said she rarely votes, because to do so would indicate that she's taken a position on a dispute. That would compromise the appearance of neutrality if bankers then complain to her about the fairness of the appeals process or charge that their appeal has made them the target of retaliation by an FDIC staff member.
Ms. Kea is equally rigorous about protecting confidentiality. The goal, she said, is to avoid paper trails that can disclose a complainer's identity, she said. "We don't create a lot of records," she said.