WASHINGTON - Federal regulators have opened themselves up to charges of playing presidential politics by seizing 20 units of First City Bancorporation of Texas just four days before the election.

The rushed nature of the seizure, late Friday evening led to speculation that regulators were reacting to political pressure from candidate Ross Perot and others who have charged that regulators were delaying failures until after the election.

Double-Barreled Criticism

"The timing of it can't be anything but political," said John Shivers, chairman and president of Southwest Bank in Fort Worth. "Ross Perot may have been the cause of it. All his ranting and raving may have forced the administration's hand."

Regulators are finding themselves subject to two contradictory criticisms.

One is that they prematurely seized Houston-based First City to protect their own reputations against charges that they were trying to aid President Bush's chances of carrying Texas, which is considered vital to his reelection.

The other is that they delayed the seizure of the long-troubled banking organization, which has $8.8 billion in assets, until the last minute to minimize its impact on the President's Texas campaign.

Officials at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the office of the Comptroller of the Currency insist that politics played no role in their decision. It's the third-costliest failure ever, with an estimated price tag of $1.5 billion.

"They were insolvent, simple as that," Andrew C. Hove Jr., acting chairman of the FDIC, said Friday. He has declined to comment further.

Executives at both agencies acknowledge that they knew for at least two weeks that units of First City were insolvent.

Seizure Called Timely

"If we could have done it sooner, we would have," said OCC spokeswoman Lee Cross. "As far as timing goes, we closed it as quickly as possible after we determined that it was insolvent."

Asked if there had been any discussion about seizing it after election, Ms. Cross said: "No."

The OCC began its final exam of First City in August. In October - the OCC won't say exactly when - it was clear that the lead bank, First City-Houston, was insolvent.

Asked why the bank wasn't closed immediately, Ms. Cross replied: "You can't do it that fast. Just getting the logistics lined up takes that much time."

Some critics contended that instead of closing it on Friday, the regulators could have let the bank limp along for several more months while they found a buyer. Instead, they decided to seize it and run it themselves.

Consultant Bert Ely said the value of the banks is almost certain to decline as a result.

"What's the rush? They would have been better off waiting a week or two to line up a buyer first," he said.

Rick Holht, an industry consultant close to the Bush administration, said that without the political pressure, regulators would have waited "until they got their act together" to close the bank.

An administration official, who insisted on anonymity, said the OCC was boxed in by the fact that First City's Sept. 30 call report was due at the end of October. The call report, which is a public document, reveals that the bank became insolvent during the quarter.

"We just couldn't go through the charade of everyone pretending they are going to be able to do a recapitalization plan," said another agency official who also did not want his name used.

Bids Had Been Received

First City's management had just announced it had received bids on some banks as part of a plan to recapitalize the company.

Some Republican staffers on Capitol Hill said they doubted the banking agencies were driven by politics. But people who have been in the regulators' shoes weren't so sure.

Former Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman L. William Seidman said the regulators "wanted to be able to show that as soon as they discovered the problem, they acted. So they wouldn't be accused of being political."

Catch-22

"You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," said former Comptroller Robert L. Clarke, now a partner with Bracewell & Patterson, a law firm in Houston.

"If you close it before the election, people say this was some kind of plot to hurt the President. If you wait until after the election, everyone says, aha, they were just holding off to protect the President," said Mr. Clarke.

"They are going to get called before [Senate Banking Committee Chairman Donald W.] Riegle and subject to GAO review, regardless of what they do or when they do it," he added.

Mr. Clarke was subjected to hearings because of the OCC's handling of the Bank of New England failure. As a result, the Senate committee refused to reconfirm him.

Sen. Riegle has asked the GAO to investigate whether First City should have been closed in 1988 when the FDIC propped up the bank with a $960 billion cash infusion and whether the delay increased the cost to taxpayers.

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