Robert Snider says his life is in shambles, and maintains that a leading California thrift bears some of the blame.

Because of an accident on a loading dock 10 years ago, the 41-year-old Palo Alto, Calif., man says he had to have a plate put into his spine, is forced to walk with knee braces, and grapples with recurring, debilitating pain.

The injuries keep him from sleeping at night, working in his previous occupation as a trucker, or holding any job at all, he says.

But physical pain isn't all that ails Mr. Snider.

He also claims to have been pushed to the brink of financial ruin by a former broker for Great Western Financial Corp., Chatsworth, Calif.

The broker, he says, sold him a mutual fund that went sour, after pitching it as a safe alternative to a certificate of deposit.

"The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was just another sucker," he said.

For its part, Great Western maintains that Mr. Snider was told of the risks when he made the investments and that its broker acted properly.

Mr. Snider's claim, awaiting arbitration by the National Association of Securities Dealers, offers a window on the growing tensions between bank brokerage operations and their customers.

Across the country, dozens of bank and thrift customers are making similar claims, lawyers say.

And their allegations are raising eyebrows in Washington, even though the banking companies have vigorously denied any wrongdoing.

One reason is that some of the complaints have been leveled by disabled and elderly people -- the very groups considered to be most vulnerable to a misleading sales pitch.

Indeed, in late September the Senate Special Committee on the Aging held a day of hearings on the subject, including testimony from two elderly investors who claim to have been misled about mutual fund investments sold to them by a NationsBank brokerage affiliate.

NationsBank, and its Nations-Securities affiliate have denied any wrongdoing.

A steady stream of publicized complaints could cause regulators and lawmakers to lessen some of the freedoms banks have gained in recent years to sell investments, experts said.

"Right now, banks are under the microscope." said Geoffrey H. Bobroff, a mutual fund consultant in East Greenwich. R.I.

Even isolated cases could lead to fines and censures of banking companies by securities regulators, said Melanie L. Fein, a bank mutual fund expert and partner with the law firm of Arnold & Porter in Washington.

At a minimum, as banks expand their investment sales programs they can be certain to see more claims like Mr. Snider's, experts warn.

In Mr. Snider's case, financial problems began shortly after he won a $1.2 million settlement in 1988 for personal injury suits stemming from the accident.

After doctors' bills, and lawyers' fees, Mr. Snider was left with $477,000, according to his arbitration claim, which is being handled by Investors Arbitration Service, Woodland Hills., Calif.

An attorney who has worked on the case for Investors Arbitration said Mr. Snider initially made a pair of bad investments with about half of the money, for which he is pursuing separate claims.

One of the allegedly bad investments was in a high-yield bond mutual fund.

The other was a trio of limited partnerships that went bust, according to Stephen Grossman, a lawyer who recently left Investor Arbitration and handed responsibility for Mr. Snider's claims to an associate.

Mr. Snider said the losses troubled him, because the money he won from the suits was meant to support him for the rest of his life.

It is for this reason that he says he specifically asked former Great Western broker Sharon Zahoudanis for a safe place to put $100,000 he had on deposit at the bank in a maturing certificate of deposit.

Instead, Ms. Zahoudanis persuaded him to put the money into a risky Kemper high-yield bond mutual fund in September 1989, according to the arbitration claim.

The claim maintains that Ms. Zahoudanis did not provide Mr. Snider with any literature describing the investment, nor did she tell him that the share price of the Kemper fund could fluctuate.

Mr. Snider said he was shocked to learn that the share price had dipped substantially after he made the investment. In a panic, he began withdrawing the money, losing nearly $35,000.

Because of losses on the Kemper fund and the other investments, Mr. Snider said he is nearly penniless. He says his sole income for supporting himself and his two young children from a marriage that recently ended in divorce is Social Security payments.

"I feel I've been severely taken advantage off" he said.

But F. Brian Cerini, chief executive of Great Western's Investment Management affiliate, said the only person to blame is Mr. Snider himself.

Mr. Cerini said Mr. Snider had actually come to Great Western as an investor experienced in high-yield bond funds who wanted to put more money into them.

He said Ms. Zahoundanis, the broker, had actually suggested he consider another investment with lower risk and yield, but that Mr. Snider was insistent.

Mr. Cerini added that Mr. Snider signed all relevant disclosure forms.

These forms said he understood the risks, that he had received a fund prospectus, and that he knew the fund lacked federal deposit insurance.

Mr. Cerini also said that while Ms. Zahoudanis was no longer working for Great Western, she was "one of the best professionals in the business."

He said she had no record of any complaints of the sort lodged by Mr. Snider. Indeed, there are no disciplinary actions against her on file with the National Association of Securities Dealers.

A Great Western spokesman said company officials had contacted Ms. Zahoudanis and that she declined to comment.

"This is a very unusual case," Mr. Cerini said. "We try to do the right thing for the customer, and we went through that process very thoroughly with Mr. Snider."

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