WASHINGTON - For national banks with complaints about regulators, Samuel P. Golden is the man to see. He is the ombudsman for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, reporting directly to Eugene A. Ludwig, the agency's head. With Mr. Ludwig's concurrence, he has the power to overrule any agency decision. The Houston-based appeals officer, who has 20 years of experience as an examiner, passes on to Washington criticisms he hears and some potential solutions to technical matters.

Q.: What are the horror stories bankers tell you about communications problems between banks and examiners?

GOLDEN: I wouldn't characterize the agency as having a problem in that. You have got to take into consideration that the complaints that I get are the anomalies. There are thousands of exams going on every year with thousands of issues that we are dealing with. And yet I only got, last year, 29 formal written appeals and 56 actionable type of inquiries, meaning that there were calls to me where we took action. This process is like the finger in the dike. It enables us to focus on those areas where we can improve. Not only will the industry win, but we win.

But to answer directly your question, it is the type of thing that you hear most prevalently from bankers - that "they won't listen to me, they haven't heard what I've said, I really didn't understand what they said." It's a whole array of different communication-oriented matters.

Q.: What is the tally for decisions now?

GOLDEN: Last count is that there are 64% of them that have gone to the benefit of the banks. That's out of the 29 that were decided during the first year. We've decided several since then, and all of those have been to the benefit of the industry. We have five that are in the hopper right now.

Q.: How long does an appeal take, on average?

GOLDEN: About 30 to 45 days, depending on the issue. Some of them we'll resolve in two or three days; some of them take three months. We try to get them all done within a month.

Q.: What is the attitude out there about the Community Reinvestment Act and fair lending?

GOLDEN: On the individual cases that I am dealing with, they want to know what the rules are so they can play by the rules.

Q.: How do you balance the concerns about satisfying your bank clients with the need to ensure the system is safe and sound?

GOLDEN: Safety and soundness is premier. At the core of everything that this agency is all about is that you can't do anything with an industry on its knees. As an agency, our core mission that we can never lose sight of is maintaining an industry that is healthy. A healthy industry can be all things to all people that it should be. Any agency that loses sight of that I think has made a fundamental mistake. In our process, that is a question that I ask in every single appeal.

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