WASHINGTON - Bank holding companies are gobbling up political dollars and making campaign contributions faster than their nonbank competitors, according to an American Banker review of Federal Election Commission filings from the 16 largest political action committees run by financial services firms.

Three banking organizations raised the most cash in the first quarter, according to the review: Bank One Corp., Bank of America Corp., and Wells Fargo & Co. Bank One's PAC had nearly $723,000 on hand as of March 31, more than the combined war chests of runners-up Bank of America (nearly $391,000) and Wells ($309,550). Whether Chicago-based Bank One can maintain that profile is in doubt in the wake of recent financial troubles, management shifts, and the departure of its top lobbyist, observers said.

Close behind are a mixture of insurance, securities, and banking companies with more than $200,000 each to spend during the six months remaining before the elections: Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., MetLife, Goldman Sachs, and Chase Manhattan Corp.

Political fund-raisers are eyeing these tallies and are expected to swoop in for major contributions to fund last-ditch television ads this fall.

"In September, there is a rush for bucks," said Marty Farmer, a retired bank lobbyist.

Indeed, some political action committees did not spend much early in the year despite significant reserves, though some others wasted no time in loosening the purse strings.

Bank One also led the big spenders, forking over $292,100 for campaign contributions and operating expenses in the first quarter. Included were $15,000 each to the National Republican Congressional Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee; thousands of dollars in transfers to state-affiliated PACs; and donations to key lawmakers such as Senate Banking Committee member Rod Grams, R-Minn., and Rep. Michael G. Oxley, R-Ohio, of the House Commerce Committee. Bank of America's PAC made more than $183,000 in outlays, and two Citigroup PACs spent more than $162,000 combined.

Like many of its peers, Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America gave money all around the country and across party lines. Among its gifts were $2,000 to Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich. - the sponsor of digital signature legislation backed by the industry - as well as $1,000 each to two junior members of the Senate Banking Committee, Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. A hometown lawmaker, Rep. Mel Watt, a North Carolina Democrat on the House Banking Committee, got $3,000 for his primary race.

Bank of America also dished out a total of $60,000 in mid-January to the House and Senate campaign committees of both parties, $15,000 to each group.

Citigroup Inc. donated $10,000 in March to former Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson, who is uncontested in next week's Democratic primary to succeed Sen. Bob Kerrey, who has said he will not seek re-election. It contributed $3,000 to Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm in February and $2,000 to the Florida Bankers Association State PAC in March. Citigroup steered $1,000 each to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a co-sponsor of anti-money-laundering legislation; Rep. John J. LaFalce of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Banking Committee; and Sen. Abraham.

Chase gave $5,000 in February to Sen. Schumer; $1,000 to Rep. Bill McCollum, a Republican running for the Senate in Florida; $5,000 to the Financial Services Roundtable PAC; and $2,500 to the Securities Industry Association PAC.

Meanwhile, the contenders to be the next House Banking Committee chairman are collecting industry dollars.

Rep. Richard H. Baker, R-La., edged out Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., during the first three months of the year. He got $4,000 from Wells Fargo, $1,000 from Chase, and $500 from Allstate Insurance Co., according to FEC filings.

Rep. Roukema got $2,000 from Morgan Stanley, and $1,000 each from Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and American Express.

However, if the Democrats win control of the House, then Rep. LaFalce is expected to take the committee's reins. He got $1,000 each from Citigroup and Morgan Stanley.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, who is up for re-election this year, got $1,000 each from Chase and Morgan Stanley.

Besides the $3,000 from Citigroup, Sen. Gramm - whose next race would be in 2002 - pulled in $13,000 from Goldman Sachs in February and $5,000 in March from American Express Co.

Unlike his counterpart Sen. Gramm, House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach showed up in none of these filings. The Iowa Republican, who has pledged to step down from the panel's helm if he wins re-election, does not accept PAC nor out-of-state contributions.

To avoid legal limitations on what they may do to support candidates, corporations encourage their employees to form political action committees. PACs' funding comes from contributions by these employees, often through payroll deductions. Contributions to candidates' committees by PACs, so-called hard money, are strictly limited to $5,000 per primary and $5,000 for the general election. Soft money contributions are unregulated gifts to political groups for get-out-the-vote activities.

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