Chinese-American customers of the Golden Pacific National Bank in New York, which was declared insolvent and closed at the end of June, yesterday vented their frustrations with federal regulators at a congressional hearing. The depositors could lose up to a total of $14 million.
Lia-wei Huang, a truck driver's wife, sobbed as she said through an interpreter that the life savings of her extended family, $56,000, were in jeopardy and that the family had been forced to back away from buying its first house.
Anna Hsue, a nurse from Secaucus, N.J., testified that federal officials had treated her "like a criminal," alleging that she knew full well that the high-interest-bearing certificate she bought was not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Banking subcommittee Chairman Fernand St Germain (D-R.I.), showing obvious sympathy for the witnesses, said the conduct of the FDIC, the Comptroller of the Currency and the Justice Department "comes across in Chinatown as a heavy-handed, plodding, uncreative and insensitive government."
He also criticized officials for delaying action for four years after problems were spotted.
The FDIC closed Golden Pacific June 21 and proceeded to liquidate its assets. Through a spokesman, FDIC Chairman William Isaac explained yesterday that the agency liquidated the bank and paid off insured depositors -- rather than merge the bank and cover all deposits -- because Golden Pacific's books were in such a mess it was impossible to determine whether a merger would be less costly to the FDIC. Five days later, Golden Pacific's insured deposits were transferred to the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp.
However, many customers were holding "yellow" certificates of deposit -- so named for the color of the paper receipts -- that the FDIC said were not booked as liabilities by the bank and therefore not insured.
After an investigation by the Comptroller of the Currency's office, it was found that the certificates were used to finance projects in which bank insiders had an interest. The FDIC is examining those CDs case by case to determine whether to make restitution.
A few of the CDs in question were stamped with faint markings saying they were investments, not FDIC-insured deposits. But most were not.
The FDIC contended yesterday that although some customers may have been defrauded by the bank, others may have been motivated to buy the CDs "by a desire to evade payment of income taxes, by a desire to avoid currency transaction reporting requirements, by a desire to obtain a higher interest rate" or other motives.
FDIC Deputy General Counsel Michael B. Burgee testified that some Golden Pacific officials had told the FDIC that customers asked for yellow CDs, those for which no tax reporting was required. On cross questioning from St Germain, he was unable to specify how many. He added that the State Department has discovered $10 million of those CDs, bought with U.S. dollars, that are now held in Taiwan.
Yet the witnesses, most of whom are recent immigrants, testified that they trusted bank employes who told them the bank was FDIC-insured and that it would pay the taxes on the interest.
In a voice cracking with emotion, Hsue told the committee, "I never had any second thoughts when I walked into bank with [an] FDIC [logo] on the door. Everyone in the United States trust banks."
Said Stewart B. McKinney (R-Conn.), "They are being screwed; it's that simple."