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UPDATE 2-Washington Trust to pay $9 million over discriminatory lending

(Adds response from Washington Trust and more details)

By Sarah N. Lynch

Sept 27 (Reuters) - Washington Trust Bank, the largest community bank in the country, will pay $9 million to settle civil rights charges that it discriminated against primarily Black and Hispanic mortgage applicants in Rhode Island, the U.S. Justice Department announced on Wednesday.

The department's complaint against the bank alleges that from 2016 through 2021, it engaged in a practice known as redlining by failing to provide lending services to residents in primarily Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Rhode Island.

Top department officials said that despite expanding across the state, it never opened a branch in a Black or Hispanic neighborhood, and that it relied on mortgage loan officers working out of majority-white areas as the primary source for generating new lending applications.

"Through this agreement, we are sending a strong message to the financial industry that we will not stand for discriminatory and unlawful barriers in residential mortgage lending," said Kristen Clarke, the Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, at a press conference on Wednesday.

A Washington Trust official said Rhode Island has been home to the bank for 223 years. "We believe we have been fully compliant with the letter and spirit of fair lending laws, and the agreement will further strengthen our focus on an area that has always been important to us," Edward O. Handy, Washington Trust's chairman and chief executive, said in a release.

Redlining refers to racial discrimination in lending practices by banks and other financial institutions, a practice that has harmed Black and Hispanic communities for decades.

In September 2021, research from the Federal Reserve bank of St. Louis concluded that residents in redlined neighborhoods across the country could not afford to buy homes or pay for their upkeep and as a result could not accumulate wealth at the rates other groups did.

A month later, the Justice Department launched a coordinated enforcement effort to crack down on redlining. Since then, it has brought nine redlining cases and secured $98 million in relief.

Under the terms of the settlement with Washington Trust, which must still be approved by a federal court, the bank has agreed to take certain steps.

These include a plan to invest at least $7 million in a loan subsidy fund to increase access to home mortgages, home improvements, home refinance and home equity loans and lines of credit for residents who live in majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Rhode Island.

The bank will also spend an additional $2 million on community partnerships and for advertising and consumer outreach in Black and Hispanic communities. (Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Mark Porter, Timothy Gardner and Kat Stafford)