Two years into her term on the National Credit Union Administration board, Yolanda Townsend Wheat remains an enigma.

To fellow Democrat and NCUA Chairman Norman E. D'Amours, she is a traitor to her party's commitment to the poor.

To Republican board member Dennis Dollar, she is a free marketeer in liberal clothing.

To outside observers, the San Bernardino, Calif., native is a whip-smart Harvard Law grad who speaks with the care and precision of a legal brief and carries herself with the chipper, technocratic efficiency of a banking attorney, which she is.

"She's one of the smartest people I ever saw," says Tim Pryor, director of regulation and compliance at the National Association of Federal Credit Unions.

"She's a very independent thinker, very bright and talented," says Daniel A. Mica, president of the Credit Union National Association.

It's all the same to the 37-year-old Ms. Wheat, who makes no apologies for her stance on the issues.

"Ninety-nine percent of what I do is guided by my primary concern for consumers," she says during a rare interview.

And while Ms. Wheat and her board colleagues may bicker over procedural issues, they unite when threatened by outside forces- like current lobbying efforts by bank trade groups to restrict credit unions' commercial lending.

"While some philosophical differences are to be expected, we don't dwell on them," she says. "It's important to note that a vast majority of all NCUA board policies are voted on unanimously."

Ms. Wheat began her career at the NCUA as a political football. In April 1996, the Clinton administration expelled board member Robert Swan-whose term had ended months earlier and who had clashed rancorously with Mr. D'Amours-and appointed Ms. Wheat. Problem was, the White House did not first check with the Senate, which was then enjoying its spring break.

Credit unions and lawmakers alike kicked up a lot of dust over the "recess" appointment, the only one in the NCUA's 21-year history.

"The credit unions objected to the procedure, not the person," says credit union consultant Geoff Bacino, who ran neck and neck with Ms. Wheat as a prospect for the board seat. "So she came in with an asterisk on her name, which is kind of unfortunate because she has done a good job."

Indeed, a year and a half after being seated on the board, Ms. Wheat sailed through her Senate confirmation.

But the hubbub surrounding her appointment was a rude awakening. Little in Ms. Wheat's 10 years behind the scenes at law firms had prepared her for the public attention or dissension.

In fact, most of her prior political experience was vicarious-through her husband Alan Wheat, who represented Kansas City, Mo., in the U.S. House of Representative from 1982-94, and her father, founder of a weekly African-American newspaper and a player in San Bernardino political circles.

Ms. Wheat avoids public battles. She is loathe to speak ill of Mr. D'Amours, prefers that the board work out its problems in closed meetings, and rarely offers opinions in public on proposed legislation. She says she hired an experienced press aide-Lisa Gruenloh-primarily to keep her name out of the newspapers.

By comparison, her board colleagues-both former lawmakers-are quite communicative.

Mr. D'Amours, for example, has repeatedly trumpeted his concern for low- income urban residents. Mr. Dollar's mantra is the free market.

But while she is happy to forfeit the public relations contest, Ms. Wheat has proved adept at the inside game. By most accounts, she has trumped her nemesis, Mr. D'Amours, by establishing alliances with Mr. Dollar and by exploiting parliamentary loopholes.

So far, says NAFCU's Mr. Pryor, one of her greatest achievements has been democratizing the NCUA.

When Ms. Wheat joined the three-member board in April 1996, only the chairman had the power to decide what would be discussed at agency meetings. Similarly, the chairman held exclusive power to hire and fire the agency's executive director, who in turn reported only to him-a situation that lent itself to abuse, judging from critical reports by the General Accounting Office, the Office of Personnel Management, and a House Banking subcommittee.

But all that has changed, if slowly. At the board's May 28 meeting, Ms. Wheat and Mr. Dollar not only voted down Mr. D'Amours' choice for executive director but also appointed their own pick over his objection.

"A lot of this stuff started before Dennis got there," says Mr. Bacino. "I think Yolanda deserves the majority of the credit."

Mr. D'Amours, for his part, says Ms. Wheat is simply being contrary. "I really believe there's nobody on the face of the planet that I could nominate at this point who she would agree to," he says. (Ms. Wheat insists her positions are based on ideology, not personality.)

Still, Ms. Wheat is in sync with the board on key policy issues, particularly vis-a-vis banks.

On the question of whether credit unions should be able to serve multiple employers, for example, she argues that forcing a credit union to draw members from just one firm is risky. Diversity promotes safety and soundness, she says.

At the same time, Ms. Wheat opposes community banks' pleas to limit credit union size. "If a credit union can successfully serve 500 or 50,000 members," she says, "that does not in any way change (its) unique not-for- profit structure." She also supports credit unions' tax exemption.

And much as her peers do, Ms. Wheat questions the need for statutory capital requirements and prompt-corrective-action measures.

Virtually every credit union meets the proposed capital minimum in the Senate Banking Committee's credit union bill, she says, and the NCUA already has powerful enforcement tools. But she says she will enforce whatever new structure lawmakers enact.

On other fronts, the Stanford University grad is drawing attention. Her legal acumen, in particular, has made her an asset on issues ranging from bankruptcy reform to the impact of NCUA regulations on state-chartered credit unions.

She even brings a legal perspective to year-2000 issues. For example, she says, if the NCUA were to decide that a credit union was at risk of failure due to year-2000 computer problems, a natural solution might be to merge it with another institution. But under the February Supreme Court ruling in the AT&T Family Credit Union case, it is illegal for a credit union to serve more than one employer group. In the absence of corrective legislation, she says, liquidation or conservatorship might be the NCUA's only options.

"I think I have a very strong understanding of the issues and a different perspective on how to approach solutions," says Ms. Wheat, who is a member of the Wright Patman Congressional Federal Credit Union.

And if she can continue to offer her unique point of view in relative obscurity, so much the better.

As for the future-Ms. Wheat's term at the NCUA ends in August 2001-she is characteristically evasive. "It's too early to know," she says.

But she is enjoying her first foray outside the private sector. "I think public service is a very worthwhile and rewarding experience," she says, "and I'd highly recommend it."

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