The head of Fleet Financial Group's investment products business has suddenly left amid an internal probe that is said to center on allegations that some brokers he supervised overcharged customers.
Michael J. Rothmeier, managing director of Fleet Investment Services, resigned Monday, said James Mahoney, a spokesman for the Boston-based banking company. Several sources said he was fired, although Mr. Mahoney disputed that.
Mr. Mahoney also confirmed that Fleet is "reviewing concerns relating to the payment of institutional brokerage commissions by Shawmut Investment Advisors," and has "shared the information about these sales practices" with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He said the practices, uncovered last month, have since ended.
Mr. Rothmeier had headed the Shawmut brokerage, which became part of Fleet when the company completed its acquisition of Shawmut National Corp. in November. He did not return phone calls to his home in Wellesley, Mass.
The incident comes amid renewed concern about bank investment sales practices. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is expected Monday to issue a study that calls into question banks' progress in improving their disclosures of investment risks.
The study - a draft of which was leaked to syndicated columnists Jack Anderson and Michael Binstein and described in their columns Thursday - was based on 7,800 in-person and telephone contacts at 1,000 banks by undercover shoppers.
The FDIC reportedly found that bank sales representatives failed 28% of the time to disclose that mutual funds lack FDIC insurance and that banks failed 30% of the time to explain that mutual funds' performance is not guaranteed and that the principal invested is at risk.
"I'm very disappointed in the results," said Sarah Miller, senior government-relations counsel at the American Bankers Association. They "highlight the need for bank and securities regulators to promulgate uniform disclosure requirements," she said.
The practices in question at Fleet - first reported in Thursday's Boston Globe - are somewhat different from the activities that the FDIC and other banking regulators have been focusing on in recent years.
Most regulatory guidelines governing bank investment sales cover retail customers. The Shawmut institutional brokers, by contrast, dealt exclusively with investment sales to corporations, pension funds, and other big-ticket purchasers.
"In the institutional market there is an assumption of greater sophistication on the part of the customer and a higher level of care on the part of the manager than for a broker selling to a retail customer," said Donald W. Smith, a lawyer with Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, Washington.
Sources said the developments at Fleet suggest that banks have grown extremely sensitive to the possibility of regulatory problems arising from their sales practices, whether on the retail or institutional side.
One executive at a mutual fund services company, who requested anonymity, said Mr. Rothmeier had been pressured to resign by Fleet's top management because of the investigation into sales practices. Fleet's Mr. Mahoney declined to comment when asked whether Mr. Rothmeier's departure was related to Fleet's internal investigation.
Industry observers were stunned by the departure of Mr. Rothmeier, who joined Shawmut in 1992 from Fidelity Investments and presided over a major expansion of the company's fund business. When Shawmut's mutual fund business merged with Fleet's much larger fund unit, Mr. Rothmeier was viewed as having pulled off a coup by winning the top job.
Another Shawmut veteran, Clarke Blizzard, an institutional marketing director who reported to Mr. Rothmeier, left Fleet on Tuesday, Mr. Mahoney confirmed. Mr. Blizzard could not be reached for comment.
Gunnar S. Overstrom, a vice chairman at Fleet Financial, will manage the areas that Mr. Rothmeier oversaw until a successor is chosen, Mr. Mahoney said.