NEW YORK -- A Justice Department official Monday railed against bankers and regulators as overreacting to the government's fair-lending investigations.
"I really deplore the scare tactics being used," said Paul H. Hancock, chief of Justice's housing and civil enforcement section. "I understand there is a very high level of tension in the industry, and we need to dissipate that tension."
To that end, Mr. Hancock said, he and his boss, Deval Patrick, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, have invited industry leaders to a meeting Wednesday.
Answering a question from one of the 3,000 bankers gathered here for the American Bankers Association's annual convention, Mr. Hancock said Justice only wants regulators to turn in banks that have a "pattern or practice" of discriminating against minorities. The unidentified banker had quoted his examiner as saying just one instance of discrimination would require a referral to Justice.
"Regulators are telling you things that are not correct," Mr. Hancock said. "What you're being told isn't true."
In an interview after his speech, Mr. Hancock denied any rift between Justice and the banking agencies. "We're in lock-step," he said.
Asked how that squares with the Federal Reserve's decision to approve expansion applications from Barnett Banks even though Justice is investigating the Florida institution for fair-lending violations, Mr. Hancock simply said, "The Fed has its job to do and we have our job to do." He would not comment on the Barnett investigation any further.
Of 50 banks that regulators have referred to Justice for possible fair-lending infractions, the department has pursued only a handful, Mr. Hancock said.
Along with representatives of the Independent Bankers Association of America, the Savings and Community Bankers of America, and the Mortgage Bankers Association, Edward L. Yingling, ABA's executive director of government relations, said he would be attending the meeting at the Justice Department on Wednesday.
The ABA has questioned whether Justice has overreached its authority, trying to use the Community Reinvestment Act to enforce fair-lending laws.
"We don't know what the rules are," Mr. Yingling said Monday. "The rules seem to move on us, and we're getting conflicting messages."
Mr. Hancock didn't dispute Mr. Yingling's complaints. But he said a bank making an effort to identify lending problems and fix them will be better off if Justice decided to investigate.
Mr. Hancock said a bank should make sure it is receiving a reasonable number of loan applications from minorities. If not, he said the bank should find out why.
Second, Mr. Hancock advised banks to check how often minorities are being rejected in comparison with whites. If the rejection rates are worse for minorities, Mr. Hancock suggested, banks should find out why.
Finally, he said banks should make sure they are offering the same terms and rates to all applicants.