In the first day of its defense, Visa U.S.A. blamed its largest member banks for stifling innovative products, such as platinum cards, saying they did so in order to further their individual interests.
The argument speaks to a major complaint that the Justice Department has lodged against Visa and MasterCard in their antitrust trial. The government asserts that cooperation between the two associations squelched products that could have benefited consumers, but a former high-level Visa executive testified Tuesday that this was the banks' fault, not Visa's.
Michael Beindorff, former executive vice president of marketing and product management at Visa, testified that in 1996 key member banks, such as Citibank and MBNA, opposed the card association's plan to develop a premium card that would compete with the American Express platinum card. When Visa shopped its plan to banks, the "reaction was mixed," he said.
Some bank marketing executives "said not to launch it," Mr. Beindorff said. "My frustration was that a number of them who questioned this were working on their own products that they wanted to keep to themselves."
MBNA wanted Visa to establish a set of rules that all issuers would have to follow in developing their own products, and Visa ended up complying. The parameters MBNA suggested to Visa were suspiciously well-suited to the product MBNA was developing, Mr. Beindorff said.
After that, banks began to issue various flavors of platinum cards that they had devised. Then all kinds of people - not just the wealthy - started being accepted for platinum cards.
"We felt platinum was really lost to us because banks ended up introducing cards that diluted the platinum name," Mr. Beindorff said. "So then Visa couldn't issue a real platinum card because banks had watered it down," he said.
Two years after the platinum debacle, Visa came out with a premium product called Visa Signature. The product was delayed, Mr. Beindorff said, by certain issuers that were looking to "further their individual aspirations."
In cross-examination, the Justice Department's lead prosecutor, Melvin I. Schwarz, sought to show that Visa had waited on its premium card until MasterCard developed a similar product. The MasterCard World card came out shortly before Visa Signature.
Mr. Schwarz pointed to documents from 1996 Visa board meetings at which bankers expressed concern about the "cannibalization of both their MasterCard and Visa portfolios if Visa launched a premium card," Mr. Schwarz said.
Under friendly questioning from Visa attorney Brent Rushforth, Mr. Beindorff, who worked at Visa from 1995 to 1999, said that if banks had been allowed to issue American Express cards Visa's commercial card products would not have existed. "There are only five or six banks big enough to issue corporate cards," he said. "If they could work with Amex, then the card probably wouldn't have been developed."
Mr. Beindorff said that in 1996 his department persuaded Visa's board to spend $200 million to develop commercial card products. Though American Express is still considered the leader in corporate cards, Visa has made major headway, winning 80% of the government's purchasing card business, for example.
Mr. Beindorff also testified that Visa's highly acclaimed advertising campaigns and sports sponsorships would be jeopardized if Amex were allowed to work with banks. These banks would probably not let Visa keep targeting Amex in its advertisements, he said.
Likewise with sports sponsorships. "If Amex were allowed to come in and pick off three large banks and influence them, those banks might then veto, say, the Olympics," Mr. Beindorff said.
Mr. Beindorff said that without bylaw 2.10e, "the association as we know it will disappear."
Mr. Schwarz responded, "The U.S. is the only place with 210e. Has Visa died anywhere else?"
In afternoon testimony, Victor W. Dahir, who has worked at Visa since 1982 and been chief financial officer since 1991, described Visa as "a consensus-driven organization" in which large banks wield the most influence, whether or not they hold board seats.
In a separate development, Discover Financial Services, the card unit of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., filed a motion last Friday to intervene in the lawsuit, which would let it present oral arguments to Judge Barbara S. Jones. She will probably rule on the motion this week.
In a statement, Discover said it is seeking "to present testimony from a limited number of its own witnesses, to offer available documents not already introduced into the record, and the like."
Justice has been wary of giving Discover's position too much play because Discover executives have said the lawsuit stops short of addressing all the anti-competitive practices of Visa and MasterCard.
W.A. Lee and Lisa Fickenscher contributed to this article.