Mortgage bankers wary of life under the CRA umbrella should be watching the Federal Reserve Board, whose recent actions against Shawmut National Corp. seem to contradict previous rulings. The Fed's Nov. 15 rejection of Shawmut's application to acquire New Dartmouth Bank conflicts with the Comptroller of the Currency's reasons for giving satisfactory ratings to Shawmut's member banks in December 1991, and also contradict two other recent Fed rulings.

These rulings, when compared with the Fed's decision on the Hartford, Conn.-based bank's application. indicate that the Fed lacks a clear-cut policy for dealing with applications involving banks that hold passing Community Reinvestment Act ratings but are being investigated by the Justice Department in connection with fair lending law violations.

There also may be a conflict as far as the Justice Department is concerned. Department officials have said they intend to sue only banks that have not attempted to improve their performances or that have failed to implement policies and practices to prevent pattern or practice bias.

Both Shawmut and another institution being probed, Barnett Banks Inc. of Florida, have acclaimed fair lending and CRA policies and procedures in place. Their programs are the kind Decatur Federal Savings & Loan of Atlanta promised Justice it would establish as part of a 1992 $1 million out-of-court settlement of the government's discrimination suit against it.

The Fed said it rejected Shawmut's application because of Justice's investigation for discrimination.

A month ago, however, the Fed approved an acquisition application by Barnett Banks - whose member banks have passing CRA ratings even though it, too, is under investigation by the Justice Department. In fact, one Barnett bank being probed by Justice holds an outstanding CRA rating from the Fed itself.

Earlier this month the Fed also approved the application of First Interstate Bancorp in Los Angeles to acquire California Republic Bank. First Interstate's member banks all have satisfactory or outstanding CRA records, but the OCC has targeted it for an extensive fair lending exam.

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