Carl Pascarella, president and chief executive officer of Visa U.S.A., strained at the leash Thursday to hit back at the Department of Justice.

In Chicago to address a small-business banking conference sponsored by American Banker and Robert Morris Associates, Mr. Pascarella said he was advised by lawyers not to say too much about the antitrust suit filed Wednesday against Visa U.S.A. and MasterCard International.

But making clear his disagreement with the accusations, he maintained that his company is "intensely competitive."

Mr. Pascarella said his company actually promotes competition and he noted that Visa cooperated with the government in its two-year investigation of the credit card industry.

"We regret the action they took," Mr. Pascarella said. "We have truly cooperated with them in the inquiry. We simply don't agree with the conclusions they have come to."

He promised the conference audience that the shackles would come off and "in the days ahead I hope you will hear from us."

The day-after attitude was very different at American Express Co. in New York. Chairman and CEO Harvey Golub and president Kenneth I. Chenault invited questions from the press in a telephone conference call. Mr. Golub sought to dispel the idea that American Express instigated the government's probe of bank card association practices.

"This DOJ issue has nothing to do with us," Mr. Golub said. "I don't think Justice cares whether we survive, do well, or not. Their interest is a consumer choice and innovation issue."

"Assuming that Justice prevails, we will start issuing cards with banks," he said. Debit cards, not currently offered by Amex, would be high on its wish list for comarketing.

Responding to Visa's and MasterCard's contention that American Express should not get a "free ride" on an infrastructure they built, Mr. Golub said, "We aren't interested in a free ride at all. We want banks to ride on our network" of merchants accepting Amex cards.

With their rival on a public relations offensive, Visa and MasterCard gave measured reactions immediately after the press conference held Wednesday by Attorney General Janet Reno and antitrust division chief Joel Klein.

Paul Allen, Visa U.S.A. executive vice president and general counsel, issued a statement that his company supports consumer choice and competition and expects the government case to fail because of the diversity of card and payment alternatives available.

Though the bank card associations were accused of inhibiting smart cards and other advances, Mr. Allen shot back that "with the speed of technology these days, the next big innovation could be right around the corner-if the government's lawyers and regulators don't stand in the way."

MasterCard U.S. region president Alan Heuer said all card issuers including American Express and Discover "have the same access to consumers and are free to market any type of legitimate competitive product. ... No one understands that more than any American consumer who has a mailbox."

"It is disturbing that the Justice Department seeks to tamper with something that works so well," said Noah Hanft, MasterCard senior vice present and legal counsel.

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