Smoke does not always produce fire.
Eugene A. Ludwig provided Republican lawmakers plenty of kindling, but documents delivered to Capitol Hill last week include nothing that will send the comptroller of the currency up in flames.
The two-inch stack chronicles Mr. Ludwig's communication with 17 bankers since May 13-the day the comptroller attended a coffee at the White House organized by the Democratic National Committee.
Mr. Ludwig exchanged 80 phone calls and 46 faxes with the bank CEOs-the bulk with Charles E. Rice, chairman and chief executive of Barnett Banks Inc.
Between May 14, 1996, and Jan. 13, 1997, the two talked on the phone 24 times. During that span of time, 27 faxes and letters were exchanged between Mr. Ludwig and Mr. Rice.
Former Wachovia Corp. chief executive John G. Medlin Jr. and Republic New York Corp. vice chairman Ernest Ginsberg placed second to Mr. Rice. Each banker had 16 phone conversations with Mr. Ludwig, and they each sent or received five faxes.
House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach's spokesman, David Runkel, said the extent of the comptroller's contact with bankers is inappropriate.
"These are not dealings with some bank technocrats about a banking proposal. These are contacts with the highest levels at these institutions," Mr. Runkel said. Rep. Leach, R-Iowa, has accused Mr. Ludwig of pressuring the banks he regulates to oppose legislation pending before House Banking.
"This raises enormous questions about the closeness between the regulator and the industry he regulates," Mr. Runkel added.
Mr. Rice, one of several bankers who opposed various provisions in Rep. Leach's financial modernization legislation last year, was traveling Friday and unavailable to comment.
But a bank spokesman said Barnett "routinely communicates with and shares relevant information with bank regulators on a variety of subjects."
Mr. Ludwig refused a request for an interview but agency officials said there is nothing improper with the contacts Mr. Ludwig has with bankers.
"Gene feels very strongly that it is an important part of his job to talk with banks about pending legislation and the impact that legislation could have on both individual banks and the national banking system," said OCC spokeswoman Leonora Cross.
In fact, Mr. Ludwig's actions are backed by the law, OCC Chief Counsel Julie L. Williams said. She pointed to Justice Department interpretations of federal anti-lobbying laws, which apply to the President and all Senate- confirmed appointees.
The Anti-Lobbying Act "does not apply to private communications designed to inform the public of administration positions or to promote those positions," according to a 1989 Justice Department opinion.
Industry consultant Karen Shaw Petrou agreed.
"This is government outreach," said the president of ISD/Shaw Inc. "If Gene didn't do this, bankers would be complaining about it."