Political Interference Seen in Bank Bailout Decisions

The Wall Street Journal

Barney Frank Goes to Bat for Lender, and It Gets an Infusion

Troubled OneUnited Bank in Boston didn't look much like a candidate for aid from the Treasury Department's bank bailout fund last fall.

The Treasury had said it would give money only to healthy banks, to jump-start lending. But OneUnited had seen most of its capital evaporate. Moreover, it was under attack from its regulators for allegations of poor lending practices and executive-pay abuses, including owning a Porsche for its executives' use.

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Nonetheless, in December OneUnited got a $12 million injection from the Treasury's Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. One apparent factor: the intercession of Rep. Barney Frank, the powerful head of the House Financial Services Committee.

Mr. Frank, by his own account, wrote into the TARP bill a provision specifically aimed at helping this particular home-state bank. And later, he acknowledges, he spoke to regulators urging that OneUnited be considered for a cash injection.

As President Barack Obama's team sets about revising the $700 billion TARP program, following last week's release of the second half of the money, among the issues it faces is widespread dissatisfaction with way the program has been implemented. Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy Geithner, testifying Wednesday at his Senate confirmation hearing, acknowledged "there are serious concerns about transparency and accountability...confusion about the goals of the program, and a deep skepticism about whether we are using the taxpayers' money wisely."

Bankers, regulators and politicians complain of a secretive and opaque process for deciding which banks get cash and which don't. The goal of aiding only banks healthy enough to lend -- laid out by the Treasury when the program began -- clearly seems to have shifted, but in a way that's hard to pin down and that the Treasury has declined to explain. Part of the problem is that some powerful politicians have used their leverage to try to direct federal millions toward banks in their home states.

"It's totally arbitrary," says South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. "If you've got the right lobbyist and the right representative connected to Washington or the right ties to Washington, you get the golden tap on the shoulder," says Gov. Sanford, a Republican.

Several Ohio banks received funds after Ohio's congressional delegation complained bitterly about the treatment of Cleveland-based National City Corp., which regulators forced into a merger rather than provide with cash. And in Alabama, the state's top banking official says a windfall there -- five banks are slated to receive funds -- is testament to the influence of two powerful Alabama lawmakers who sit on key congressional committees.

A link between such lobbying and the release of TARP cash can't be proved. Treasury officials have said that political influence plays no role in the selection process. "The decisions are made by a committee of officials at Treasury based on recommendations and data provided by the regulators through the applications process," said Brookly McLaughlin, who was a spokeswoman for the Treasury until the Bush administration ended on Tuesday.

Restoring Credit Flow

Treasury and Federal Reserve officials have repeatedly said the TARP program was successful in its primary purpose, which was to bring the credit markets back from the precipice.

The task of further restoring credit flow now falls to Mr. Obama's team, which has spoken in favor of pumping more money into banks, as has Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. The new administration is weighing a range of ideas, including using at least $50 billion of the TARP money to prevent foreclosures, and possibly other measures such as setting up an "aggregator bank" to hold toxic assets now burdening banks' books.

The federal plan to invest in banks was controversial from the start. The Treasury said it would acquire preferred stock in banks, and sometimes warrants for common stock as well, but not any voting or management rights. Within the broad structure known as TARP, this is called the Capital Purchase Program.

At a hastily arranged meeting on Oct. 13, then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson basically forced the chiefs of the country's nine biggest banks to accept cash infusions. The government invested $125 billion in the nine. Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp. subsequently returned for more money.

A further $125 billion was committed under the Bush administration to buy stakes in some of the remaining 8,500 U.S. banks and thrift institutions. More than 250 have received cash or commitments so far, totaling about $68 billion. The recipients range from large regional banks to Saigon National, a 12-employee lender catering to Vietnamese-American businesses in Southern California.

The procedure for getting a capital injection is complex. State and federal regulators sometimes complain that even they don't understand how it works.

A bank applies through its federal regulator, which either recommends to the Treasury that the bank receive money or quietly tells the bank to pull its application. A public turndown could be a death sentence because it would tell investors and consumers the government thinks the bank isn't viable.

If the regulator forwards the application, the Treasury decides whether to approve it. If the Treasury's reviewing team is uncertain, it sends the request to a panel of federal regulators to debate the matter.

The results have many in the industry scratching their heads. Two banks in Green Bay, Wis., have received federal investments. But in Arizona, a state hit hard by the housing slump, officials say they are perplexed that a dozen or so state-chartered banks haven't heard back from Treasury about the status of their applications.

Arizona's banking superintendent, Felecia Rotellini, says she is teaming up with local bankers and state legislators who plan to start lobbying Arizona's congressional delegation for help. "Some states are getting better treatment, and we just want it to be a level playing field," Ms. Rotellini says. "I think it's just a question of advocacy. It has to be a congressional voice."

A body set up to monitor the program, the Congressional Oversight Panel, has said the process of allocating money lacks transparency and accountability. The Treasury declines to explain why one bank is chosen for a federal investment and not another. Those that receive federal cash sometimes boast they have a government seal of approval, leaving banks that are shut out facing awkward questions about why they didn't.

In mid-October, days after summoning the nine big-bank executives to Washington to accept aid, the government took a far different approach with Cleveland's National City, which was struggling with soured real-estate loans.

National City executives consulted with their examiners at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which is a division of Treasury, about whether they should apply for a capital injection. Local OCC officials gave them the green light, according to people familiar with the matter.

In Washington, National City got a chillier reception. The company was facing mounting losses stemming in part from its ill-timed purchases of two Florida banks shortly before the state's real-estate market imploded. Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan informed National City executives they shouldn't apply because their bank was too weak. Instead, he told the bank to sell itself. Within a week, it agreed to a $5.6 billion takeover by PNC Financial Services Group Inc. in Pittsburgh. (PNC declined to comment.)

A political firestorm erupted in Ohio when it became clear the government had turned down National City, a 163-year-old bank with deep roots in Cleveland. Ohio's congressional delegation sent dozens of letters to Messrs. Dugan and Paulson and threatened to hold hearings on how the Treasury had supposedly wrecked a bank they said wasn't in immediate danger of collapsing.

Some lawyers, bankers and analysts say the case marked a turning point in the Treasury's handling of capital injections. For one thing, since then, some weak regional banks have pocketed billions of dollars in TARP funds.

In addition, Ohio banks are now faring better. Twelve Ohio banks have subsequently received a total of $7.7 billion in taxpayer funds. In neighboring Michigan -- like Ohio, hurt by the auto-industry slump -- only two banks have had federal infusions and a third has preliminary approval, for infusions totaling $638 million.

Among the Ohio beneficiaries is Huntington Bancshares Inc., of Columbus. It received a $1.4 billion federal investment in November, even though, like National City, it was hurt by souring real-estate loans and the weak regional economy. Amid mounting losses, the bank last week replaced its chief executive.

In Alabama, Colonial BancGroup Inc. asked for Treasury cash in November. With its application blessed by its state regulator and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Montgomery bank figured it was a shoo-in for funds, say people familiar with the bank.

Real-Estate Loans

But because Colonial was weighed down by real-estate loans, the Treasury sent the bid to its panel for reviewing controversial applications, consisting of four federal regulatory bodies: the FDIC, the Fed, the OCC and the Office of Thrift Supervision. Negotiations lasted several weeks. Eventually, the Treasury gave preliminary approval to Colonial's request for $550 million in capital.

The slow process infuriated Alabama officials. The same day that Colonial announced its application had been approved, Trabo Reed, Alabama's deputy banking superintendent, wrote a letter to Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, the top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, complaining that the government had dragged its feet and kept banks and state officials in the dark. The letter didn't specifically cite Colonial (which had no comment).

Rep. Bachus's office forwarded the letter to the heads of bank regulatory agencies and asked them to examine the situation. Since the letter was forwarded, two more Alabama banks have received TARP funding. Five Alabama banks, including Colonial, are slated to collect a total of about $4.2 billion.

In all, about 50 state-chartered Alabama banks applied, according to state banking superintendent John Harrison. He says his office helped shepherd them through the process, figuring that "the more applied, the more had the chance to get it."

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Mr. Harrison says that in addition to Rep. Bachus, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, "has been a big proponent for Alabama state-chartered banks...and he was really concerned that the TARP money went here." The banking official added: "We're blessed with a U.S. senator that was on the banking committee and Spencer Bachus being the ranking Republican" on the House panel. "I think [the Treasury] got the message."

Aides to Rep. Bachus said he did nothing more than forward Mr. Reed's letter and ask for consideration. Sen. Shelby has consistently opposed the financial-system bailout. His office denied that he was involved in helping Alabama banks get money. "Sen. Shelby has never intervened on anyone's behalf for TARP money," an aide to the lawmaker said.

The bank that Rep. Frank of Massachusetts went to bat for, OneUnited, saw its capital level sink in early September after the U.S. took control of the overextended mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. OneUnited, a closely held Boston-based lender with offices in Florida and California too, held large amounts of Fannie Mae preferred shares. Their value plunged after the U.S. put Fannie and Freddie into a federal conservatorship, acquired preferred shares in them and took warrants entitling the government to nearly 80% of their common stock.

The moves left OneUnited's capital badly depleted. A measure called "Tier 1 risk-based capital" equaled only 1.88% of assets at the bank, versus a desired level of about 6%. A OneUnited lawyer, Robert Cooper, says he called Rep. Frank and Rep. Maxine Waters of California, both Democrats, to complain that the Treasury's move had hurt the bank.

Rep. Waters heads the House Financial Services subcommittee on housing, and until last spring her husband, Sidney Williams, was a OneUnited director. Rep. Frank, besides heading the Financial Services Committee, has longstanding ties to OneUnited, and recalls having had a deposit account at a predecessor bank in the 1960s.

Later that month, Rep. Frank was intimately involved in crafting the legislation that created the $700 billion financial-system rescue plan. Mr. Frank says that in order to protect OneUnited bank, he inserted into the bill a provision to give special consideration to banks that had less than $1 billion of assets, had been well-capitalized as of June 30, served low- and moderate-income areas, and had taken a capital hit in the federal seizure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

"I did feel that it was important to frankly try and save them since it was federal action that put them into the dumper," Mr. Frank says.

Porsche for Executives

On Oct. 27, the FDIC and Massachusetts bank regulatory officials, alleging poor lending practices and executive-compensation abuses by OneUnited, slapped it with a strong enforcement action, a cease-and-desist order. Among other things, the officials told the bank to get rid of a 2008 Porsche for executives.

Mr. Cooper, the bank's attorney, dismisses the order as a "hastily cobbled together" action. "What we are talking about is a hiccup, a blip on the screen of an otherwise-stellar enterprise," he says. Asked whether the bank had sold the Porsche, he said only that it was complying with the order.

Mr. Frank -- who has played a leading role in both the initial design of TARP and current planning to revamp it -- says he spoke with a federal regulator and asked that OneUnited be given consideration for TARP money, "without in any way impinging on their general safety and soundness rules." Mr. Frank said he didn't remember which federal regulator he spoke with.

On Dec. 19, OneUnited received $12 million from the Treasury, on condition it raise $20 million from its shareholders, which it did.

Ms. McLaughlin, the spokeswoman for the Bush administration Treasury, said that OneUnited's application was subject to the same review process as other banks faced.

Mr. Frank said he didn't try to interfere with the regulatory process. "We have never told the regulators that they should ease up on them or not order them to do this or that," he said.

He cites the bank's status as the state's only financial institution owned by African-Americans. "We did say, yes, I thought it would have been a social tragedy if the one minority bank in Massachusetts that has been working so hard and had been overextended into housing was to be wiped out by a federal action, the Fannie-Freddie preferred [shares] thing, and that's why I think it was important to try to help them."

Rep. Waters said she was unaware that the bank received money. OneUnited was "just a small" bank, she said.

Write to Damian Paletta at damian.paletta@wsj.com and David Enrich at david.enrich@wsj.com

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