WASHINGTON - Bankers are losing a powerful ally in the fight against money laundering as Treasury Under Secretary for Enforcement Ronald K. Noble returns to academia.

Mr. Noble plans to leave his post in February to teach at New York University's School of Law, where he had been an associate professor for four years before joining the Treasury.

"For me, this has been an exciting and challenging experience," Mr. Noble wrote in his Dec. 15 resignation letter to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. "At times, a source of great sadness, but more often a source of tremendous inspiration."

Mr. Noble was promoted to under secretary in July 1994 after being appointed as assistant secretary for enforcement in May 1993.

It is unknown when President Clinton will nominate Mr. Noble's replacement. Reportedly among the top candidates are former New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and former Sen. Dennis DeConcini, an Arizona Democrat. A Treasury official said both were "reasonable candidates" but wouldn't comment on when a possible replacement would be named.

The post had been created in July 1994 to give the Treasury a greater role in federal law enforcement. While Mr. Noble has taken some heat for his agency's role in the Waco and Ruby Ridge incidents, bankers have seen him as an important friend.

"Banks are losing a real ally," said John J. Byrne, senior federal legislative counsel at the American Bankers Association. "Under Mr. Noble, the lines between banks and the Treasury were much more open than they had been in years."

During his tenure, Mr. Noble initiated the restructuring of the Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, the government's main weapon against money laundering. The purpose of the changes was to generate greater cooperation between the government and the private sector in combating the ever-growing problem.

Fincen Director Stanley E. Morris said Mr. Noble's success in promoting the importance of fighting the problem within the current administration became apparent earlier this month at an international money-laundering conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

"It says something about how important the administration feels this issue is when the Treasury secretary leaves budget talks and the goings-on in Washington to talk about money-laundering problems in Buenos Aires," he said.

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