ORLANDO The thrift industry has created a $100.000 war chest to fight the Clinton administration's fair-lending initiatives.
Members of the Savings and Community Bankers of America, meeting at Walt Disney World, are most concerned about the Justice Department's aggressive pursuit of banks' fair-lending records, top. trade group officials said.
"To have this 10-ton gorilla called Justice sitting there and saying, 'Well, you may have the approval from your regulators, but we own the jungle' -- I guess we need an elephant gun to get the gorilla," said David E.A. Carson, SCBA's incoming chairman.
"No institution in the country is big enough to fight the Justice Department," he added.
Although other industry trade groups, including the American Bankers Association, are exploring ways to deal with the Justice Department's fair-leading enforcement activities, the SCBA war chest is the first concrete action taken by any trade group.
Mr. Carson is expected to announce creation of the "emerging issues fund" Wednesday as he takes the reins of the thrift trade group. SCBA's board voted Sunday to create the fund with $100,000 from the group's budget. Although the fund could be used for other purposes, its only target now is the Department of Justice's fair-lending complaints.
The $100,000 "is a down payment on emerging issues," said Mr. Carson, who is also president and chief executive officer of the nation's 20th-largest thrift, People's Bank, Bridgeport, Conn. "We know that, when issues come up, we may end up spending more."
After Chevy Chase Savings Bank agreed to settle Justice Department charges, "a lot of bankers have now concluded that the government is going to define your market area for your," said SCBA president Patti A. Schosberg.
The thrift group has not decided exactly how it will deploy the fund and has not yet committed itself to defending a specific issue or institution.
But the money would most likely be spent on legal defense of a specific institution SCBA feels could serve as a test case for the entire thrift and banking industry.
The Justice Department's latest target is Barnett Banks Inc., which it plans to charge this month with fair-lending violations. All other institutions that Justice has pursued have settled rather than fight the charges in court.
SCBA officials said they had not decided which -- if any -- institution to defend.
The group might also use the fund to prepare research, public relations campaigns, or a friend-of-the-court brief as part of an advocacy campaign. The fund could be used to seek influence on any emerging issue -- such as lender liability on environmental matters -- but so far, its most likely target is fair lending, Mr. Carson said.
"Fair lending and the involvement of HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] as a regulator in conjunction with Justice is clearly an emerging issue," Mr. Carson said.
"It is a mysterious process in which the ante is constantly upped," Mr. Schosberg said Sunday.
Other banking trade groups might add their voices -- and their money -- to the thrift group initiative. The ABA board of directors recently ordered its staff to explore alternatives, including the possibility of creating a fund to back member institutions that fight the Justice Department.
"We have talked informally about the need to support each other on these issues," Mr. Carson said. However, SCBA has held no formal talks with other groups, he said.
Lou Nevins, president of the California League of Savings Institutions, said, "It is our fondest hope that not one penny of this will ever be needed."
"We just don't believe that, in establishing a fund to help somebody who feels unjustly accused or unjustly selected by Justice, that we would be in any way suggesting that we have anything to hide."