WASHINGTON - Ford Motor Credit Co. last week agreed to pay the federal government $650,000 to settle fair-lending charges, but the company called the case a technical matter and said a broader probe turned up no other violation.

The Federal Trade Commission alleged that the Dearborn, Mich., finance company discriminated against unmarried co-applicants seeking auto loans. Ford Credit allegedly gave these borrowers less favorable terms than married couples by failing to count their combined incomes. The company admitted no wrongdoing in connection with the practice, which the FTC found took place from May 1994 to August 1995.

The FTC and the Justice Department have been ratcheting up fair-lending enforcement efforts in recent years. This was the FTC's second-largest fair-lending settlement.

When the investigation of Ford Credit began in 1996, the FTC looked for other kinds of discrimination besides that against unmarried and unrelated co-applicants, said company spokesman Walter H. Jennings. "The broader investigation began as an investigation into race and gender lending practices," he said. "Ford Credit was and is in full compliance."

An assistant director in the FTC's division of financial practices, Jessica Rich, declined to comment on details of the original investigation. "But we do look for that kind of discrimination," she said.

In the mid-1990s, the FTC examined whether minorities paid more for auto loans bought through brokers. Many finance companies that bought the loans were investigated, but little seems to have come of it, said Laurence E. Platt, a partner at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart.

"There is not a lot of meat to this," he said. "It sounds like they're trying to salvage a fuller investigation and needed to justify the time they had put into it."

As for its disparate treatment of co-applicants, the Ford Credit spokesman said prior to June 1995 the applicable regulation was "unclear" as to whether finance companies could combine the incomes of non-married couples. "The Federal Reserve issued a clarification and shortly thereafter Ford Credit was in compliance," Mr. Jennings said.

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