WASHINGTON -- The Office of Thrift Supervision has taken the unusual step of calling hearings into a community group's complaint that two big savings banks involved in a merger had failed to serve their community.

The OTS told the group, Inner City Press/Community on the Move, that its complaint against Dime Bancorp and Anchor Bancorp is "substantial" -- a finding that means the regulator believes the case merits investigation.

Activists cheered the OTS decision, saying it stands in contrast to other decisions that favor the banking industry,including the Federal Reserve's recent approval of a bid by Barnett Banks Inc. to expand amid a fair lending investigation by the Department of Justice.

"I am very concerned the pendulum is swinging" toward banks, said Kenneth H. Thomas, a leading advocate of community reinvestment. "So, whenever you have a victory, it is very important."

The regulator's decision, announced last Friday, marks the latest victory for Inner City Press. The group recently used the merger-approval process to obtain agreements from Marine Midland Bank and Republic New York Corp. under which each will invest $15 million in the Bronx.

The group took aim at an even bigger target on Friday, filing a complaint against Chase Manhattan Corp.'s application to combine its Connecticut and New York operations.

Inner City Press charged that Dime and Anchor, which together have $20 billion of assets, target only the more affluent section of the Bronx. And, they said the thrifts receive far fewer loan applications from Hispanics than from whites.

A Dime spokesman could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Matthew Lee, executive director of Inner City Press, said his group is pleased it will get a chance to air its complaint. "For now, OTS has done everything it can do," he said.

The date and location of the Dime-Anchor heating will be decided in the coming weeks, OTS spokesman Bill Fulwider said.

Banking advocates said the OTS decision may prevent the institutions' from merging in January, as scheduled.

"It has the potential of stopping the merger in its tracks," said Eugene J. Sherman, senior vice president at the New York investment firm M.A. Schapiro & Co. Inc.

"The hearing could take several months, then be delayed," agreed Robert Taylor, a banking lawyer at Hartford's Day, Berry & Howard.

Fear that a hearing will stall a merger often leads banks to settle these types of complaints, Mr. Taylor said.

Mr. Sherman, who said he is familiar with Dime's community lending record, said he does not believe there is much merit to the charges.

"It won't be a protracted delay," he said. "I think the merger will go forward."

The OTS action in the case could have broader implication, said banking attorney David W. Roderer of Washington's Winston & Strawn.

Mr. Roderer said the Inner City Press complaint appears to raise many of the same servicing issues that the Department of Justice brought in the Chevy Chase Federal Savings Bank case this summer.

OTS acting director Jonathan L. Fiechter last month questioned the legal underpinning of the Chevy Chase prosecution, telling a trade group that the Justice Department has not tested in court the theory that a bank must serve communities where it doesn't operate branches.

The Chase complaint marks the first time the group has attacked an institution with a sizable presence in the borough. Previous complaints have focused on banks that did not include the Bronx in their CRA service areas.

"We are proud of our record," Mr. Willis said. "We consider all of the Bronx in our delineation," said Mark A. Willis, president of Chase's community development

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