WASHINGTON - The government could be on the hook for as much as $15 billion because of lawsuits brought by thrifts - a prospect that greatly complicates the deposit insurance debate.

Ricki Tigert Helfer, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., warned of the potential payout in testimony to Congress on Friday.

The huge liability could make it tough for the thrift industry to persuade lawmakers to provide funds for rebuilding the Savings Association Insurance Fund. If Congress refuses to rescue SAIF, the banking industry is viewed as the next best source of funds for the undercapitalized thrift fund.

The lawsuits she referred to are the more than 50 pending "goodwill" cases. The suits charge the government with breach of contract or an uncompensated taking of property.

The plaintiff thrifts agreed in the 1980s to take over weak institutions after the government promised supervisory goodwill, an intangible asset, could be counted as regulatory capital for up to 40 years.

But in the 1989 thrift-bailout law, Congress reneged on the deal, forcing acquirers to write off the goodwill much faster.

The government has lost the first two cases. The FDIC, through the FSLIC Resolution Fund, paid $6 million on Feb. 17 to one plaintiff. In the second case, the agency faces a $26 million judgment, which is pending before the court of appeals for the ninth circuit.

"The FDIC now regards liability in that second case as 'probable,' and a reserve is being established for this judgment," Ms. Helfer told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on independent agencies. "We believe the judgment should ultimately be paid by the United States."

While Ms. Helfer said it is hard to quantify potential liability, she said the Office of Thrift Supervision estimates pending cases will cost $1.2 billion to $4.9 billion.

Then she added: "But total losses could potentially reach several times that amount if exposure for claims not yet filed is considered."

The largest goodwill case is the $1.4 billion that Glendale Federal Bank is seeking. That case was argued in February 1994 and a decision is expected anytime from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

While subcommittee members did not jump on Ms. Helfer's remarks, industry observers said Friday that once her warning gets wider distribution it will spark concern on Capitol Hill.

"It's going to make Congress mad," predicted banking consultant Bert Ely, president of Ely & Associates in Alexandria, Va. "They're going to say, 'Doesn't this ever end? The thrifts keep coming at us. All we do is keep pumping out taxpayer money.' "

Mr. Ely said the news is bad for the banking industry as well.

"It increases the pressure to ask the banks to help out," he said.

Jim Butera, a lawyer with Butera & Andrews here, said Congress could take away the thrift industry's best source of funds for SAIF: leftover Resolution Trust Corp. money. "Congress may say we need the RTC funds for this (goodwill cases)," he said.

The thrift insurance fund needs about $6.8 billion before thrift premiums may be reduced. Until SAIF is recapitalized, thrifts will be forced to pay six times as much as banks for deposit insurance.

Thrift industry representatives on Friday played down the significance of Ms. Helfer's comments.

"You might as well say RTC funds should be used to pay for the B-1 bomber," said Philip Gasteyer, general counsel for America's Community Bankers. "That doesn't make any sense at all."

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