WASHINGTON -- By exploiting a regulatory loophole, the Comptroller of the Currency is undercutting the nearly three-year delay Congress put on interstate branching.

Capital Bank, a $77 million-asset bank here, is the first institution to win the Comptroller's approval to branch into a new state. The bank, which has three offices in the District of Columbia, will open a new office in nearby Rockville, Md., and designate it as its headquarters.

The bank will operate branches here and in Maryland without creating separate affiliates.

Senior Deputy Comptroller Konrad Alt said Thursday that this is the first time the Comptroller's office has allowed a bank to use the loophole to branch into a state where it had no existing operations.

At least 20 banks are interested in following Capital Bank's lead, Mr. Alt said.

The regulatory loophole permits banks to move their headquarters 30 miles, even across a state line. In the past, however, institutions used the exemption to merge existing operations in two states.

For example, First Fidelity Bancorp. moved its Pennsylvania affiliate's headquarters in February to New Jersey and then merged it with its existing New Jersey operations.

"We view this application and approval as fully consistent with the reasoning that was set in the previous opinions," Mr. Alt said of the Capital Bank application, which was approved Oct. 13.

David Roderer, a banking attorney at Winston & Strawn law firm here, said he expects a rush of applications as other banks use the exemption to get a head start on interstate branching.

"This seems to suggest that any bank can jump state lines," Mr. Roderer said.

Maryland State Banking Commissioner Margie Muller said federal law prevents states from blocking institutions that want to use the loophole to begin interstate branching early.

"There is really nothing we can do," she said.

Interstate legislation was signed into law on Sept. 29. Banks will be allowed to acquire institutions across state borders in September 1995, but interstate financial institutions will not be able to merge banks they own into a single organization until June 1, 1997.

Mr. Roderer said nothing preVents an institution from establishing a national banking empire by repeatedly using the 30-mile rule to "leap frog" across the country, leaving branches behind after each jump.

Banking attorney Gilbert T. Schwartz, a partner with Washington's Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom law firm, agreed that the loophole, in existence since 1866, allows institutions near a state line to "jump the gun" on interstate branching.

"There isn't anything a state can do to prevent this," he said.

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