Once again, Paul A. Schosberg is fighting the thrift industry's extinction.

Since taking the helm of the nation's leading thrift trade group in 1992, he has lobbied aggressively to help bring savings institutions from the brink of death and to restore their competitiveness.

With battles to resuscitate the industry now over, the president of America's Community Bankers is locked in another life-and-death clash-to keep Congress from doing away with the federal thrift charter altogether.

"Thrifts have been under siege almost without letup since the late 1970s," Mr. Schosberg said. "The people who work in this industry have the right to ask-is it always going to be this way?"

To Mr. Schosberg, today's battle is bitterly ironic.

After struggling for a decade to repair their finances, thrifts are enjoying unprecedented economic health. What's more, the federal thrift charter is back in vogue: There are 33 applications on file with the Office of Thrift Supervision, more than half of them from the country's largest financial firms, such as Allstate Corp. and Transamerica Corp.

Despite the charter's appeal, many in Congress have knocked it. Bills passed by the House banking and commerce committees would force federal thrifts to convert to commercial banks.

Critics of the charter, such as House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach, say it gives a select group of financial institutions powers that state laws would not allow, and permits a dangerous mixing of nonfinancial conglomerates and banking.

Federal thrifts are unique among depository institutions because they are exempt from state consumer protection and intra-state branching laws. Also, the charter breaches the wall between banking and commerce by permitting a nonfinancial firm to own a single thrift.

Critics also reason that depository institutions specializing in residential lending are no longer needed because a wide range of financial firms have dived into the mortgage business.

Mr. Schosberg dismisses those arguments. "Charter assassination," he said, is the goal of some lawmakers and the American Bankers Association.

He also spurned charges by Rep. Leach and the ABA that his group's opposition to financial reform legislation violates a 1996 deal to replenish the Savings Association Insurance Fund.

"It really defies credibility to think we would have put three years into removing the cloud of uncertainty over deposit insurance, only to turn around and say we will give up our charter," he said in a recent interview.

Such brusque assessments don't always win friends in Washington, but thrift executives say they like Mr. Schosberg's direct style.

"Paul is extremely effective in making a point and making that point stick," said George L. Engelke Jr., president and chief executive officer of Astoria Federal Savings in Lake Success, N.Y.

Mr. Schosberg, 59, began his trade group career in 1974 when he became president and chief executive of the New York League of Savings Institutions, which merged with another state trade group to form the Community Bankers Association of New York State in 1992.

After the merger, Mr. Schosberg won his spot at ACB, which was formed though a merger of two major thrift trade groups and was first called the Savings and Community Bankers of America.

Earlier in his career, he spent 10 years as chief of staff for two New York Democratic congressmen, first Richard L. Ottinger and then Herman Badillo. In the early 1960s he was a political reporter and bureau chief for a suburban newspaper chain in New York's Westchester County. He also co-wrote "See How They Run-the Making of a Congressman" for Chilton Books in 1964.

James Montgomery, former chairman of Great Western Financial and a past ACB chairman, credited a 1996 campaign by Mr. Schosberg for rallying reluctant thrift executives to pony up $4.7 billion to shore up the Savings Association Insurance Fund. That fix allowed regulators to reduce the industry's deposit insurance premiums.

"There's no question that thrifts would not be in a position to compete with banks today if we were still paying higher premiums," Mr. Montgomery said.

Mr. Schosberg has taken heat for ACB's tough stance on the charter issue.

In December, Rep. Leach let loose with scathing invective when he told the Association of Financial Services Holding Companies that "we are in desperate need of interest groups that keep their word." After repeated bailouts from Congress, "these groups understood that the trade-off in all of this is charter consolidation."

But Mr. Schosberg shrugged off the lecture: "We agreed only to a good- faith effort to build a truly modern charter-we want to put all the benefits of the thrift charter on the table for the benefit of the entire banking industry."

But even an ACB ally in the thrift charter debate says Rep. Leach's complaints are justified. Patrick Forte, president of the Association of Financial Services Holding Companies, said ACB's stand wasn't clear when plans to abolish the charter were tied to 1996 thrift fund bailout.

"That has made life more difficult for us today because these ideas are still alive," Mr. Forte said.

Whether belated or not, ACB's defense of the thrift charter has squelched once-frequent talk that a merger with the ABA is in the offing. Though the Independent Bankers Association of America has long opposed the type of nonfinancial ownership permitted by the thrift charter, Mr. Schosberg reserved his criticism for the ABA, which, he said, had back- pedaled on the issue.

"The situation is sad because banks can have bottom-line gains with a broader charter. But the ABA lacks the courage to pursue the fight."

Donald Ogilvie, executive vice president of the American Bankers Association, charged that small banks would be hurt as more nonfinancial conglomerates move into banking.

"Like Paul, we have always argued for 'chartering up,'" Mr. Ogilvie said. "There are parts of the thrift charter we would very much like to have, such as the power to preempt state authority. But it comes down to the level that commerce and banking will be mixed. We don't believe it should be 100%."

Despite the chasm on charter reform, Mr. Schosberg and ABA officials concede that a deal could make sense after the debate is resolved. The groups continue to cooperate on a variety of other issues, including lobbying for restrictions on credit union membership, bankruptcy reforms, and regulatory relief.

But until the charter fight is settled, ACB can afford to wait, Mr. Schosberg said. "Ultimately, what takes place will be the result of sound business planning and shared goals. There's not any need for shotgun marriages."

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