Retail giant Wal-Mart has issued a tart response to critics trying to thwart its buyout of Federal BankCentre, a thrift in Broken Arrow, Okla.

Turning the tables on community bankers, the company said it is doing the deal because customers are demanding banking services but banks near some Wal-Mart "supercenters" have declined invitations to open in-store branches.

"The branches that have opened in supercenters have been successful, yet many local bankers choose not to meet the needs that their customers have expressed," the Bentonville, Ark.-based company's outside counsel, Ronald R. Glancz, wrote in a Sept. 24 letter to Frederick R. Casteel, a regional director of the Office of Thrift Supervision.

The OTS is considering Wal-Mart's application to buy Federal BankCentre. The Independent Community Bankers of America has urged the agency to reject the deal, arguing that the buyout would enable a dangerous mixture of banking and commerce, reduce availability of credit to commercial borrowers, and damage Federal BankCentre's compliance with community reinvestment requirements.

In the 17-page letter, Wal-Mart rebutted the trade group's claims point by point. It said there are sufficient regulatory safeguards against improper interaction between the bank and Wal-Mart subsidiaries. It also disputed the association's claim that Wal-Mart's ownership of a thrift would restrict the availability of financial services in and remove capital from communities where Federal BankCentre might operate. The acquisition by Wal-Mart would strengthen, not weaken, Federal BankCentre's CRA compliance, according to the letter.

Karen Thomas, director of regulatory affairs for the ICBA, said, "There is nothing ... that assuaged any of the concerns that we raised in our comment letter."

In addition to the association's letter, the Office of Thrift Supervision has received one from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union reiterating many of the bankers group's objections and accusing Wal-Mart of legally and ethically lax practices.

An OTS spokesman said, "Like all letters we receive, we will take them into consideration when we review the application." He would not say how far the agency has gotten in its Wal-Mart review.

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