Small banks, consumer groups, and lawmakers this week lashed out at the recent wave of bank merger deals.

Objecting to the proposed Citicorp-Travelers Group combination, community bank leaders asked the Federal Reserve Board not to act on the merger application until Congress votes on pending financial reform legislation.

"The merger would change the financial landscape of the United States," Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America, wrote in an April 14 letter to Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan.

"We question whether an action of this magnitude is within the proper domain of the board," he wrote. "In our view, it should be left to Congress .... There are serious questions as to the legal permissibility of the proposed merger."

Mr. Guenther urged Mr. Greenspan, and in a separate letter, House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach to hold hearings on the merger.

Separately, a dozen consumer advocates protested outside a First Union branch here Wednesday, charging the industry's merger binge would lead to higher fees and worse customer service.

"As the banks consolidate, they use their monopoly muscle to drive up fees," said Russell Mokhiber, founder of Battle Against Sin in Corporate Society. "The only way this is going to stop is if the consumers around the country start confronting these banks."

Protesters complained that First Union Corp. - whose merger with CoreStates Financial Corp. was approved Monday by the Fed - charges customers $2 to use other banks' automated teller machines and $29 for bounced checks.

After briefly joining the protest, First Union customer Tyrone W. Ferguson agreed with protesters that Congress should intervene. "Some government control ought to be put in here," the local mail carrier said. "Regulate the fees."

First Union spokeswoman Laurie Hedrick said customers can avoid fees. "With the big banks come more choices, options, and convenience," she added.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., called on the Fed and the Justice Department to review merger applications "with a fine-tooth comb" to ensure they will not harm consumers.

"More concentration in the banking industry might fatten big bank profits, but it will come at the expense of the consumers who are paying higher banking fees," Sen. Dorgan said in a statement. "These mergers will mean less competition."

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