Hearing sought on Wells Fargo

Consumer activists question National Bank of Alaska takeover

Posted: Wednesday, April 19, 2000

ANCHORAGE - Local and national consumer activists want to delay Wells Fargo & Co.'s takeover of Alaska's largest bank until federal regulators hold public hearings on the deal.

Alaska Village Initiatives, the Rural Alaska Community Action Program and New York-based consumer watchdog group Inner City Press have asked the Federal Reserve Board to delay the $907 million takeover of National Bancorp of Alaska.

Inner City Press has opposed other bank mergers. It united with the Alaska Public Interest Research Group to ask for the hearings.

The groups are concerned that Bush banking services could deteriorate if branches are closed, and they question whether Wells Fargo discriminates against minorities and low-income borrowers.

But Wells Fargo and NBA say rural branches will stay open and that charges of discrimination are unfounded.

``There's a lot of reason to believe that (Wells Fargo) is going to treat Alaska like it's just another market in the Lower 48,'' said Katherine Alteneder, an Anchorage lawyer representing the Alaska Public Interest Research Group.

Alteneder also accuses Wells Fargo's subsidiaries of discrimination in Alaska.

Two subsidiaries already operate in the state - Norwest Financial and Norwest Mortgage, which changed its name to Wells Fargo Home Mortgage on Monday.

In 1998, Alteneder said, Norwest Mortgage made no home loans to Alaska Natives in Anchorage. Low-income Alaskans also found it harder than other residents to get Norwest mortgages, based on her review of the company's lending data filed with federal regulators.

The raw numbers confirm that Norwest didn't grant mortgages to blacks or Alaska Natives living in Anchorage during 1998.

But that information doesn't paint a complete picture, said Maria Villanueva, consumer affairs manager at the Federal Reserve's San Francisco office.

It would be reckless to conclude there's discrimination based on the numbers alone because they don't factor in market conditions, the location of the company's branches or other criteria, she said.

Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Unger said the same data used by Alteneder shows that Wells Fargo Home Mortgage is the leading U.S. lender to minority homebuyers and second-leading lender to people with low and moderate incomes.

The Federal Reserve Board should decide in the next 60 days whether to approve the takeover. Bank executives hope to close the deal in mid-June.

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