WASHINGTON -- Amid the debate about opening doors to the underserved, a small Maryland thrift has gotten into trouble for locking people out.

Maryland Federal Savings and Loan, Hyattsville, restricts entrance to 20 of its 21 offices, with tellers opening main doors only after they have taken a look at the person wanting in.

On tour to gauge banking services in the area last month, four top regulators were shocked to learn firsthand of this policy. They had to wait outside until a teller buzzed them in.

Symbol of Insensitivity Seen

A barrage of bad publicity has followed.

The Washington Post, regulators, activists, and legislators have lambasted the thrift for its locked-door policy. They called the security precaution excessive and symbolic of the lender's insensitivity.

Jonathan Fiechter, acting director of the Office of Thrift Supervision told Congress in a recent hearing that he hoped publicity would convince Maryland Federal to unlock its doors.

Thrift Sees a Catch-22

"Hell, no," said Robert Halleck, president of Maryland Federal. (See related story on page 6.) "If we did that, we'd be written up by the OTS for [lax] security measures, I guarantee it."

The attention paid to Maryland Federal's locked door comes just as regulators are trying to reform the Community Reinvestment Act, to focus it on lending instead of less substantive issues like public relations and symbolic gestures.

The branch that regulators visited makes more loans than it takes in in deposits, offers free checking, and offers the best rates around, the president said.

"The symbolism may look awful," Mr. Halleck said, "but we're sitting out there serving the community in an exemplary. fashion."

And after more closely examining the thrift's record. regulators agreed.

"Maryland Federal is trying to meet customer needs there and make a buck doing it," Mr. Fiechter said. "We have an institution doing an outstanding job of serving that marketplace."

"The whole thrust of our CRA effort is going to be to try to reward institutions such as Maryland Federal that are demonstrating a commitment to their community." he added.

Mr. Halleck said the buzzers were installed for a simple reason: Employees and bank customer want them. He has never gotten a complaint from a customer about the locked doors. And despite the precaution. Maryland Federal branches have been robbed nine times in the last two years he said.

"I know of two cases where the robbers where putting masks on outside the doors and the tellers wouldn't let them in." he added.

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