As if Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson weren't enough, defenders of the Community Reinvestment Act have found a new champion: comedian Al Franken.

Franken who as a "Saturday Night Live" correspondent wore a satellite dish on his head and as an author called Rush Limbaugh "a big fat idiot" has turned his focus to Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm's assault on the controversial 1977 law.

Specifically, Mr. Franken wants to know whether the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, George W. Bush, would side with Sen. Gramm and industry critics who consider the CRA credit allocation or would take a kinder, gentler view that the law assures worthy, lower-income borrowers of getting loans. He quizzed Texas Gov. Bush about it two weeks ago in Iowa.

"I asked him, was he aware that Gramm was trying to gut CRA in the new (financial reform) legislation," Mr. Franken said in a phone interview last week. "And I said, 'You know what CRA is?' "

The candidate's answers suggested a passing familiarity with the subject. " 'Yeah, I do,' " Mr. Franken quoted Mr. Bush as saying. " 'I think some compromise has been reached on that.' "

When asked whether the CRA was part of his so-called "compassionate conservatism," Mr. Bush told him: " 'Oh yes, oh yes.' "

(A Bush campaign spokeswoman was unable to confirm the exchange or elaborate on the candidate's positions.)

Mr. Franken who has submitted a partly humorous article to George magazine about the presidential campaign straw poll in Ames, Iowa, won by Gov. Bush said issues such as the CRA will be a real test for the new-style Republican.

"I basically asked the question to see if this compassionate conservatism thing was genuine," Mr. Franken said.

"It just seems to me making capital and credit available to low-income people and minorities is exactly what he's talking about. ... I'm on the side of CRA."

How does Mr. Franken know so much about banking policy?

He is buddies with Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who invited him to observe a focus group commissioned by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition on the CRA and other economic issues. Also, Mr. Franken and former Comptroller of the Currency Eugene A. Ludwig became pals at the annual Renaissance Weekend retreats on Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Besides, the cornerstone of Mr. Franken's fictitious run for commander-in-chief in "Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency" is opposition to automated teller machine fees.

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Banks took one on the chin on network television last week when "Good Morning America" aired a piece explaining the industry practice of selling customer account information to telemarketers.

The report, which aired on the ABC show last Tuesday, discussed the lawsuit filed this summer by Minnesota against U.S. Bancorp of Minneapolis. The $77 billion-asset company was accused of giving customer information to a travel company in return for sales commissions.

The network interviewed two bank customers who felt betrayed, Comptroller John D. Hawke Jr., and Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., in addition to representatives from the bank and from the Minnesota attorney general's office.

U.S. Bancorp eventually settled the suit out of court and agreed to stop selling information to outside parties but admitted no wrongdoing.

But Janice Lieberman, ABC's consumer editor and author of the piece, urged customers of other banks to demand that their information is not sold either.

If they refuse?

"Change banks," she advised.

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A recent convert to the Democratic Party, Rep. Michael P. Forbes of New York, has joined the House Banking Committee.

To clear a space for Rep. Forbes, fellow New York Democrat Gary L. Ackerman will step aside until October, though he will remain a member of the conference committee on financial reform. Rep. Forbes temporarily assumes Rep. Ackerman's spots on the capital markets and financial institutions subcommittees.

After October, another New Yorker, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, is expected to rotate off House Banking to make room for the new Democrat.

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John B. Bowers Jr. has stepped down after 14 years as executive vice president of the Maryland Bankers Association to take a consulting job at Bank Compensation Strategies, Minneapolis.

A. Patrick Linton, president of the Maryland Bankers and chief executive officer of FCNB Corp. in Frederick, said he expects that Mr. Bowers' successor will be hired this fall.

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Paul R. Gentille started work this month as deputy chief financial officer at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. For the last two years, Mr. Gentille was CFO of the Treasury Department's Community Development Financial Institutions Fund.

He has worked for the federal government for more than three decades.

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