Inouye's bank-relief call raises eyebrows


POSTED: Thursday, July 02, 2009

WASHINGTON » Hardly a bank bailout hearing goes by in Congress without a lawmaker raising a question on behalf of constituent banks that have applied for federal assistance from the government's financial bailout fund.


Now the case of Sen. Daniel Inouye and his office's inquiry to a federal regulator regarding a Hawaii bank is drawing new attention to the role lawmakers are playing in the government's decisions on how to divvy up the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Constituent service or undue influence?

In Inouye's case, the Hawaii Democrat was also one of the founders of the bank, Central Pacific Financial. And while he holds no official position with it, he is a shareholder who has watched the value of his stock in the bank drop precipitously.

According to Inouye's office, a legislative assistant placed a call last fall to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the bank's regulator, to ask whether the agency had received the bank's application for TARP money.

The inquiry by Inouye's office was first reported Tuesday by the Washington Post and ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces public-interest investigative journalism.

In a statement, Inouye said his aide simply left a voice message with the FDIC and did not speak to anyone at the agency.

“;This single phone call was the entire extent of my staff's contact with regard to Central Pacific Bank, to any outside agency,”; Inouye's statement said. “;Neither I nor my staff took any actions that would undermine the independence of those procedures.”;

Inouye's office said an FDIC official called back days later and left a voice message saying the application was still under review.

The bank announced in December that its application for $135 million in TARP funds had been approved.

“;We did not ask for any preferential treatment in this process,”; bank spokesman Andrew Rosen said. He said the bank briefed Hawaii's congressional delegation about its application “;as a normal course of business.”;

Melanie Sloan, executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C., said that one phone call to regulators doesn't seem like unusual pressure on a federal agency.

But she said, “;There are ethics rules that say members of Congress should avoid a conflict when there's an appearance (of a conflict of interest). Here there's clearly an appearance problem.”;

Brett Rabatin, a Strene Agee bank stock analyst who covers Central Pacific Financial, said he believes the bank deserved TARP funds and would have received the money without Inouye's intervention.

Rabatin said the bank made some bad loans in California, but its Hawaii portfolio appears strong.

If the bank hadn't gotten the funds, it would have had to raise additional capital or sell assets to raise money to cover its loan reserves, Rabatin said.




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Rosen said the bank this year is on track to exceed the amount of home loans it originated last year.

Numerous lawmakers have pressed regulators and the Treasury Department to act on the applications of banks that serve their districts or communities. The Ohio congressional delegation complained loudly last year when Treasury declined to give TARP funds to National City Bank, a longtime Cleveland institution.

OneUnited of Massachusetts received $12 million in federal funds in December after Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, contacted regulators and included in legislation a provision that assisted the bank. Before that, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., had organized a meeting with regulators and executives of minority-owned banks, including OneUnited, a bank in which Waters' husband has invested.

Earlier this year, Neel Kashkari, then the Treasury official in charge of the TARP program, faced questions during a congressional hearing about news reports suggesting that Treasury was getting political pressure.

“;We do get calls from members (of Congress). We do get calls from governors who are concerned about their districts or their businesses, et cetera,”; he said. But he said those calls usually are referred to agencies that regulate the institutions.

“;I feel very confident in saying there is no undue influence at Treasury,”; Kashkari said then.


Star-Bulletin reporter Craig Gima contributed to this report.