WASHINGTON -- The banking industry scored a victory against the Department of Justice on Tuesday when the comptroller of the currency agreed to let Barnett Banks Inc. complete a merger while facing charges of lending discrimination.
The comptroller's office gave Barnett the go-ahead to acquire 34 Florida branches of Glendale Federal Bank, even though Justice is pursuing charges of discrimination by Barnett. The comptroller's office became the second banking agency to back the deal, following the Federal Reserve.
Although Tuesday's action-pitted two branches of the Clinton administration against each other, Justice and the comptroller took pains on Tuesday to show harmony on the decision. In an unusual public display, Deval L. Patrick Justice's assistant attorney general for civil rights, joined Comptroller Eugene A. Ludwig, to announce the approval.
"We are comfortable that the comptroller's office has made a fair assessment," Mr. Patrick said. The Justice Department official said Barnett no longer discriminates in its lending. However, he made it clear that Justice still intends to pursue charges that the bank violated fair-leading laws in 1991 and 1992.
"Qualified people were denied loans by Barnett for reasons totally because of race," Mr. Patrick said. Barnett denies that it discriminated.
While the accord applies only to the Barnett-Glendale deal directly, it will probably have broad implications for the rest of the banking industry.
One likely result is that banks facing prosecution by the Justice Department will be less likely to settle if they feel they have a good case, banking attorneys said.
"There will be less compulsion to settle" cases brought by the Justice Department for banks that feel they have a good case, said H. Rodgin Cohen, a law partner at Sullivan & Cromwell in New York.
Banks won't need to settle cases if they know their acquisitions will not be held up by bank regulators, he added.
Thomas P. Vartanian, a banking attorney at Washington's Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, agreed that the accord could embolden a bank to fight the Justice Department.
"They are more likely not to fold their cards at the first sight of regulatory opposition, and when push comes to shove, they will be more likely to take things to court," Mr. Vartanian said.
Barnett's Glendale acquisition was thrown into the spotlight in late September, when the Federal Reserve Board approved Barnett's acquisition of 26 other Glendale branches even though the Justice Department had put the Fed on notice that it expected to file a case against Barnett.
The Fed approval triggered an angry dispute with Justice and put the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in an awkward position, forcing it to choose between another administration agency or a fellow bank regulator.
Both the OCC and the Fed had to approve the deal because some of Barnett's
Florida banks are overseen by each agency. To evaluate the deal, the OCC had to first complete new Community Reinvestment Act exams for three of the Barnett banks it oversees.
Mr. Ludwig and Mr. Patrick said the two agencies tackled the project jointly, agreeing that the OCC would look only at the period of July 1993 to June 1994. "We have tried not to duplicate work done by an agency we have confidence in," added Mr. Patrick.
Mr. Ludwig said the OCC did not use the same investigative tools that the Justice Department employs. Rather than run a complex computer program, the OCC pulled more than 1,700 loans files to look at whom the bank accepted and rejected for loans.
The OCC examination showed marked improvement from what the Justice Department found, Mr. Ludwig said.
"If anything, I hope there is a closer coordination with all the banking agencies on this issue," said Joe Belew, president of the Consumer Bankers Association. "There are too many cooks in the kitchen."