A community group charged Monday that Sumitomo Bank of California discriminates against female and minority employees, and asked the Department of Labor to investigate.

Sumitomo officials said the charges were groundless. "To be attacking us at this point is very surprising," said Kyle Tatsumoto, Sumitomo's vice president in corporate planning. "We are not sure what their motivation is."

The Greenlining Institute, a coalition of West Coast activists, charged in a complaint with the department that there are no women, blacks, Hispanics, or Southeast Asians in the top 10% of Sumitomo management.

The group also said that women and minorities who do make it into management do not advance far. They are confined to "low-paying managerial positions with no policy input," the group said.

It urged the Labor Department to begin an investigation within a month. It also said the department should ask the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to suspend Sumitomo's deposit insurance on safetyandsoundness grounds.

Mr. Kyle disputed all of the Greenlining allegations. He noted that the bank has two female directors, one of whom is black. He said a black woman is also the No. 2 official for the entire Northern California branch network.

Mr. Kyle also said it was absurd to think that a bank established in the 1950s to combat bias against Japanese-Americans would end up discriminating against other minorities.

He also questioned the Labor Department's authority over the bank. "They have jurisdiction over federal contractors and we don't believe we are one," he said.

This is not the Greenlining Institute's first run-in with Sumitomo. It has been pursuing a Community Reinvestment Act complaint against the bank.

The community group's discrimination complaint comes at a time when bank hiring practices are coming under increasing scrutiny. An assistant secretary of labor said last month that her agency is increasing its oversight of bank hiring practices. Recently, the agency settled a case against Provident Bancorp. in Cincinnati, which agreed to hire more than 200 minorities whom it previously had rejected, and pay them more than $800,000 in back pay.

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