Norm D'Amours is loving life.

After a bruising year of allegations and investigations, the National Credit Union Administration chairman finally gets to play the hero.

Mr. D'Amours is leading the industry's attack on a lawsuit challenging the agency's right to expand credit union membership.

What's more, he has assembled some potent allies. Just last week, NCUA persuaded the U.S. Solicitor General to take the case to the Supreme Court.

"It was not hard to persuade them," Mr. D'Amours said Friday in an interview. "I think people increasingly are beginning to understand the importance of this issue to all Americans. The Justice Department already understands."

The case, which began in 1990, pits four North Carolina banks and the American Bankers Association against NCUA and AT&T Family Federal Credit Union of Winston-Salem, N.C.

On July 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said NCUA had gone too far in 1982 when it allowed occupation-based credit unions to expand by accepting groups of employees from other companies.

Federal law, Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg said, requires every employee joining an occupation-based credit union to share a single, common bond.

If that interpretation holds, NCUA says, 158,000 employee groups representing 35 million people could lose their memberships in 3,586 credit unions. "Over time there would be a serious impact on credit unions and the insurance fund," Mr. D'Amours said.

NCUA tried to temper the impact of the ruling last week by rejiggering its membership rules.

Credit unions may serve employees from more than one company as long as all the companies are in the same "trade, industry, or profession," NCUA said. For example, AT&T Family could serve the telecommunications industry.

While the ABA is expected to announce today whether it will challenge the new rules in court, Mr. D'Amours said the agency only did what Judge Ginsberg suggested in his opinion. "We are very confident that we are acting well within the bounds of his decision," Mr. D'Amours said.

But Judge Ginsberg was not absolute. According to the decision, "the agency might define an occupational group differently - e.g., all workers in the same trade - and perhaps pass muster."

But many in the credit union world are not counting on the courts to fix this problem.

Kenneth L. Robinson, president of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, said "the move through the courts is really to buy time" - time to persuade Congress to update the laws governing credit unions.

Mr. D'Amours plans to fight on both fronts, but he did say a legislative fix "would require very little."

"We just need to make clear that Congress did intend that groups, each having their own common bond, could belong to the same credit union," he said.

It will be interesting to watch Mr. D'Amours lobby lawmakers. The last 12 months have not been kind to the former Democratic congressman from New Hampshire.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato has been on his case to tighten NCUA regulation of corporate credit unions. Mr. D'Amours said these rules will be addressed Jan. 16.

And Rep. Spencer Bachus of the House Banking Committee is investigating allegations by former NCUA Director Bob Swan that Mr. D'Amours is mismanaging the agency.

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