SAN DIEGO -- Gary S. Gertz is one angry auditor, and he's hoping his fellow compliance officers will get mad too.
The time has come, said the First Interstate Bancorp executive vice president, for compliance officers to think more about changing the rules than simply obeying them.
"We're being regulated like a public utility," Mr. Gertz said. But, he said, bankers can do something about it. "Bankers don't realize how easy it is to get involved and what an impact they can have."
A few recent events suggest bankers have more sway in Washington than they used to. Regulators said they used the thousands of comment letters filed by banks when they redesigned the community Reinvestment Act proposal.
Two important pieces of legislation -- allowing banks to branch across state lines and providing funding for community development banks -- were enacted this year.
It doesn't hurt that the banking industry is in good health, Mr. Gertz said.
The ways to affect legislation, said Mr. Gertz, are obvious. Write comment letters, visit lawmakers in Washington, and lobby state legislators. The difference, he said, is doing those things rather than just thinking about them.
Everyone knows compliance has grown radically in the past few years. But bankers aren't accomplishing anything by complaining about laws and rules after they are passed, Mr. Gertz tells them. Get involved before decisions are final, he said, and make inevitable legislation better.
As president of the California Bankers Association, Mr. Gertz traveled around the country trying to get bankers mad and take that energy to Washington.
Mr. Gertz, 50, became active in legislative issues in late 1988 through the California Bankers.
His "real job" is as First Interstate's general auditor, supervising internal auditing in the 13 western states. He joined the bank in 1986, and assumed his current position in Los Angeles in 1991. Earlier, he spent 15 years with the giant accounting firm Peat Marwick.
Mr. Gertz, who talks more like an activist than a banker, said he never saw this pan of his life coming but he's having a good time with it. "My purpose is to get everyone involved," he said.
Ironically, Mr. Gertz said the recent Chevy Chase lending discrimination case may help his cause. The Maryland thrift settled with the Justice Department for $11 million, which based pan of its case on Chevy Chase's branch placement.
"Chevy Chase is perceived by so many bankers as so outrageous and so far out on the end of the spectrum that it may in fact be a stimulus in getting bankers more involved," Mr. Gertz said.
Bankers should demand that regulators separate enforcement of fair lending and CRA, two entirely different issues, he said.
Although fair lending and CRA are indisputably the compliance issues of the day, Mr. Gertz warned bankers to look ahead to the investment product area. He said banks should be monitoring their own sales now to stave off strict regulation. The more problems the government finds, the more detailed the regulation will be, he said.
"We don't need investment product regulation, we need to get our acts together," Mr. Gertz said.
Mr. Gertz is effective. Last year, he led the largest group of California bankers ever to invade Capitol Hill. He advises bankers to focus on a few issues in their lobbying efforts so lawmakers are not overwhelmed. He urges them to stress that the legislator's constituency includes the bank's customers as well as the bankers themselves.
He stresses the importance of explaining how the legislation bankers support is good for the consumer. For example, bankers could show Congress that bank costs for training and computer software to comply with a new law would be passed on to the consumer.
"We have to look at things through the eyes of the customers we serve," he said.
Mr. Gertz suggests that besides making appointments on Capitol Hill, bankers call their state legislatures for meetings. Each year the California bankers group sponsors a legislative day during which members hit Sacramento with questions, information, and ideas.
If lawmakers disagree with the bankers' views, he said, "You have to convince them that they need to get additional insights, that they are not understanding all the issues as we see them out in the trenches. You have to close the gap between perception and reality."
Most big banks have people who go to Washington on a regular basis and know how to lobby with the best of them, he said. Smaller banks may be more strapped for time and people, but they might actually be moreeffective because they know their representatives personally, Mr. Gertz said.
Besides compliance fights, Mr. Gertz is gearing up for a battle against a merger of the bank and thrift insurance funds. "Bankers are being too gentleman-like and ladylike in this issue," he said.
The banking industry will have to go public and say it didn't create the thrift industry's problems, he said.
"Your competitor down the street doesn't come in and bail you out if you happen to have a financial difficulty," Mr. Gertz said.