The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has opened the door for national banks to establish automated teller or loan machines anywhere, regardless of state laws.

In a letter to Wells Fargo Bank, the Comptroller's Office said the Sept. 30 Economic Growth and Regulatory Paperwork Reduction Act excluded "remote service units" from the definition of "branch."

The just-released March 6 letter is important because it affords national banks more flexibility in setting up automated networks, OCC Chief Counsel Julie L. Williams said Monday.

"The significance of this will depend on the extent to which banks want to expand or switch to totally automated types of facilities," Ms. Williams said. "As banks think more about the use of technology and remote delivery through these automated facilities, the statute and this interpretation will become more and more relevant."

A Wells Fargo spokeswoman declined to comment on the letter, but Washington lawyers were enthusiastic.

"This a big deal because it allows national banks to engage in a panoply of banking services anywhere without regard to state law," added David W. Roderer, a lawyer with the Washington law firm Goodwin, Procter & Hoar. "It recognizes that you can do electronically what you may not be able to do with brick-and-mortar."

The letter effectively eliminates a state's authority over automated teller and loan machines, said Brian W. Smith, a partner with the Washington law firm Mayer, Brown & Platt. "While this is just a straightforward interpretation of the law, this is certain to be controversial with some states," he said.

Indeed, John L. Bley, director of the Washington Department of Financial Institutions, said he was concerned that national banks would be able to establish ATMs anywhere without regard for state community reinvestment rules.

"We're seeing more and more of a trend of decisions out of the OCC that may be in the best interest of bankers, but not necessarily in the best interest of the public," Mr. Bley said.

However, Ms. Williams stressed that all automated teller and loan machines that take deposits must be included in a bank's Community Reinvestment Act assessment area.

As of June 1, banks will be allowed to branch into most states. Only Texas and Montana have "opted out" of interstate branching. (See related story on page 4.)

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