Federal thrift regulators initiated action yesterday to seize the assets of the former owner of Lincoln Savings and Loan, Charles H. Keating Jr., saying that they do not believe his claim that he is broke and they suspect he may have hidden funds in offshore investments.

The Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) issued a new administrative complaint accusing Keating and five of his associates of violating thrift regulations and demanding they repay $40.9 million to cover part of the losses suffered by California-based Lincoln, whose failure may cost taxpayers $1.7 billion.

The government already has filed a $1.1 billion bank fraud and racketeering lawsuit against Keating, but the new legal action allows regulators to move quickly to claim any money that Keating has, said Timothy Ryan, OTS director.

Despite Keating's frequent statements that he was wiped out financially by the failure of Lincoln and his Phoenix home-building company, American Continental Corp., "we have reason to believe the funds are available," Ryan said.

Using its regulatory authority, OTS issued an order giving Keating five days to provide the government with financial statements prepared by a certified public accountant disclosing all his assets and identifying any overseas bank accounts or foreign investments he has.

Ryan said regulators have "no specific information" about Keating hiding money in offshore accounts. "We do not believe his statements to the press and to the public that he is broke," said Ryan. "It's up to him to prove to us that he is broke."

"They can't get blood out of a turnip," replied Brad Boland, Keating's son-in-law and press spokesman. Boland said the government "knows he doesn't have any money" because it recently agreed to let Keating have more time to pay $5 million in personal debts to avoid personal bankruptcy.

Congressional investigators disclosed earlier this year that Keating and members of his family collected $34 million in salaries, bonuses and stock profits over a four-year period. "It's hard to believe all that money just disappeared into thin air," said Carolyn Lieberman, the OTS lawyer in charge of the case.

Hearings by the House Banking Committee disclosed that American Continental had a secret subsidiary in Panama that was not shown on corporate records and had never been reported to federal regulators, although investigators were unable to trace funds to Panama.

The hearings chaired by Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) also produced questions about possible transfers of Lincoln funds to offshore accounts through a European investment firm. In the months before Lincoln failed, $30 million was transferred to the firm. Lincoln officials said the money was to cover investment losses.

Yesterday's complaint asks that Keating and his associates be forced to repay $24.2 million lost by Lincoln on a loan to the Hotel Pontchartrain in Detroit in which Keating and the others were investors. It also demands repayment of $4.4 million lost on an Arizona land transaction and $12.3 million for stock purchased by an employee stock ownership plan from Keating, his family members and associates.

Keating has two suits pending against the government. He has sued for $750 million in the Court of Claims, maintaining that the government action to seize Lincoln was illegal, and U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Sporkin is expected to rule next month in a similar case filed by Keating.