The late actress Elizabeth Taylor may have said it best: "You find out who your real friends are when you're involved in a scandal."
If Taylor was right, then Financial Institutions Inc. in Warsaw, N.Y., and Evans Bancorp in Hamburg, N.Y., can count Canandaigua National Chief Executive Frank Hamlin as an ally.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has accused the $3.1 billion-asset Financial Institutions and the $847 million-asset Evans of redlining in certain minority neighborhoods. In a recent letter to Canandaigua's shareholders, Hamlin threw his support behind the beleaguered banks, criticizing the legal system while suggesting that Schneiderman's efforts were politically motivated.
"I am extremely suspicious of the arbitrary and capricious manner in which various agencies... are abusing the legal system in order to further their own political and economic interests," Hamlin wrote.
"In the recent past, we have witnessed two local community banks charged with violations of consumer protection regulations," he added. "The regulations are vague in explaining what conduct is actually prohibited. The media, of course, does the people no service by merely assuming these prosecutions are based in sound legal theory and fact."
Hamlin, who worked as a public defender for a decade before joining Canandaigua in 2011, did not respond to multiple emails seeking further comment. Still, his statement appears to leave little doubt where he stands in the two redlining cases. (Financial Institutions quickly settled its case, while Evans has vowed to fight.)
"I can understand the decision to fold,' Hamlin wrote. "The potential sanctions are severe on both the corporate and personal fronts. One must decide to put the livelihood of their employees and potentially their own personal liberty on the line or merely cry 'Uncle' and give the 'People' its pound of flesh and go on with life."
As for Evans, he wrote that those who chose to defend themselves "are forced to depend on a legal system that has mutated its focus from time-honored legal principle and justice to efficiency and political expediency. I can assure you there is no such thing as efficient justice."
Such unvarnished commentary from a CEO is, to put it mildly, atypical and potentially hazardous, industry experts said.
By taking on hot-button social and political issues in a public letter, Hamlin runs the risk of alienating some of his investors and attracting the attention of activists and government officials, said Melissa Dodd, a professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Central Florida's Nicholson School for Communication.
Hamlin isn't the first corporate leader to take a firm, public stand on controversial issues, Dodd noted. She mentioned Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Chik-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy, who have argued on opposite sides of the same-sex marriage debate. What makes Hamlin's letter stand out is that it seemed to lend support to two competitors that are linked in the public consciousness to an unsavory business practice.
"I would definitely call it a risk," Dodd said.
Hamlin, who became CEO two years ago, has a habit of inserting sharp-elbowed commentary into shareholder communications. Since taking the helm at Canandaigua, he has sniped repeatedly at Congress for the Dodd-Frank Act, and criticized New York's Department of Financial Services for inefficiency.
George Hamlin 4th, Hamlin's father and predecessor as CEO, was known for long shareholder letters and biting criticism of regulators. In a 23-page letter sent to shareholders in August 2012, for example, the elder Hamlin likened the combination of Dodd-Frank and Basel III to a "regulatory tsunami."
The Hamlin family has controlled Canandaigua since the company's 1887 founding. Frank Hamlin is the fifth member of the family to serve as president or CEO; his father ran the bank from 1979 to 2013.
Schneiderman's office zeroed in on Financial Institutions during a probe that began in November 2012. The company's Five Star Bank is the seventh-largest bank in the Rochester, N.Y., area, with $864 million in deposits at 19 branches. Schneiderman's office accused the bank of failing to serve predominantly minority neighborhoods.
Five Star never admitted wrongdoing, pointing to the "outstanding" rating it received during a 2011 Community Reinvestment Act exam. In January, however, the bank agreed to a settlement that required it to open two branches in minority neighborhoods and spend $500,000 on discounts and subsidies on loans to minority borrowers.
Evans is fighting the lawsuit Schneiderman filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York in September. The lawsuit alleges that Evans systematically denied mortgages and other banking services to black residents of Buffalo's East Side. Evans has set aside $1 million to fight the litigation.
Evans finds it "distasteful" that Schneiderman "would impugn our reputation in a way that doesn't reflect our behavior," David Nasca, the company's president and chief executive, said in an interview last week. In later comments to shareholders, he added that it is "not in [Evans'] culture or DNA as a community bank to avoid any part of our community."
Nasca said he had not seen Hamlin's comments before being contacted by a reporter last week. Nasca offered no specific opinion about the statement, though he added: "I know Frank and I know the Hamlins. Frank is a lawyer, so he has a unique perspective."
Evans also performed well in its 2013 CRA exam. Nasca said the company, which invested more than $21 million on Buffalo's East Side from 2010 to 2014, plans to invest another $4.3 million. He promised a vigorous defense against the redlining charges, though he added that he was open to settling the case but not if it means admitting wrongdoing.
"We believe the accusations are without merit," he said. "If you look at the statistics, it's tough to make a case [Evans Bank violated the law] . People that know our bank know we wouldn't discriminate."
A spokesperson for Schneiderman's office declined to comment.