Four nationally chartered banks in Oklahoma are challenging a state rule that prohibits them from opening new branches.

They contend that the expiration of a law preventing thrifts from branching provides national banks with a loophole.

While that law was extended as a rule by the state's banking commissioner, national banks say it doesn't apply to them.

They are basing their argument on a 1987 federal court ruling that said banks are similar to thrifts and therefore should have the same branching rights.

"We are not subject to rules," said George Schumacher, chief executive of First National Bank and Trust Company of Vinita, which wants to open a branch 30 miles from its home base. "We feel confident that we are right."

The banks have filed branch applications with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The Oklahoma Bankers Association and the state's banking commissioner have sent letters to the federal regulator protesting the applications.

"I don't care what the feds say, the laws has to be adhered to by everybody," said Mick Thompson, Oklahoma's banking commissioner.

"We think it is unfair to allow national banks to branch and state banks not to. It ought to be the same rules. We don't think you ought to give any one group an advantage."

Mississippi Decision Cited

Banks in Oklahoma can branch by acquiring another institution or office. They can also open two branches in their headquarters town, or branch within 25 miles of their headquarters providing the town doesn't have another bank.

But Mr. Schumacher said national banks in Oklahoma should be able to branch anywhere they want based on a Mississippi case decided in 1987. A federal court gave national banks there branching powers after a law that prevented thrifts from branching expired.

Recently, Oklahoma's legislature abolished the state savings and loan board and transferred its powers to Mr. Thompson. He extended the branching restriction on state-chartered thrifts-which expired on July 1 - with an emergency rule to stop national banks from gaining an unfair advantage.

Mr. Schumacher expects the Comptroller's office to rule on his application in December.

"If we are successful...it is going to change the banking complexion in Oklahoma completely," he said.

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