WASHINGTON - Justice Department officials have told banking industry representatives that they are taking a series of fair-lending questions the industry posed to a "slightly higher level."

The trade group officials said Assistant Attorney General Deval Patrick and his deputies made the comments in a series of short letters and phone conversations made during the past five weeks.

The industry officials said they suspect Justice is consulting with the White House and top Treasury Department officials before clarifying its fair-lending views.

"It is my understanding that with the uproar over Chevy Chase, it has ended up back at the White House," one trade group official said.

The industry asked the department for the clarification last fall in the wake of the Chevy Chase Federal Savings Bank settlement. That settlement involved unprecedented charges that the thrift discriminated by failing to serve minority communities.

Justice Department officials are downplaying the "higher level comments," saying they referred to meetings with the banking agencies.

"What they meant was this was a wider, more comprehensive level," one Justice Department official said, adding it did not mean White House personnel.

The official said the department is pushing the banking agencies to speed up the consultation process so they can get the clarification out shortly.

"There is no point in us speaking with one voice and them with another," the official said. "That is why it is taking so long."

Banking trade group officials said they are not yet impatient, even though they submitted their questions more than three months ago.

"It is a fairly thorny set of issues," a second trade group official said. "For all I know, they are trying to judge the political implications of the reform."

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