The nation's top national bank regulator, John D. Hawke Jr., announced yesterday that he will step down when his term expires next month.
Hawke -- who recently has been under fire from Congress for his agency's oversight of scandal-riddled Riggs Bank -- was appointed comptroller of the currency by President Bill Clinton and then permitted to remain in the job by President Bush. He will depart Oct. 13 after nearly six years in the post. The announcement has been expected for months, congressional aides said.
Hawke, 71, said through a spokesman that his decision to depart the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a unit of the Treasury Department, is not tied to problems at Riggs. "I have felt for a long time that the end of my term is the right time to retire to keep my departure out of the environment of election-year politics," Hawke said through OCC spokesman Robert M. Garsson.
Critics such as Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) say -- and Hawke has publicly agreed -- that the OCC failed to adequately oversee Riggs. The OCC in May fined the bank $25 million for widespread, long-standing violations of law intended to thwart money laundering. The Justice Department, including the District's U.S. attorney's office, and at least two Senate committees continue to investigate the bank and its relationships with customers such as officials of the Saudi Arabian embassy, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea and former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
But critics also point out that Riggs's problems predate Hawke's tenure, beginning at least a decade ago, when Eugene A. Ludwig was comptroller. Ludwig has been working for Riggs for approximately a year to help it comply with an OCC order to comply with anti-money-laundering laws.
Hawke became comptroller Dec. 8, 1998. It is a job he has said he has prepared for all of his professional life. Before joining the OCC, Hawke was a Treasury undersecretary in the Clinton administration. Before that, he was a top partner in the law firm of Arnold & Porter LLP and widely recognized by government officials and banking industry executives as a top expert in financial services law.
"I am pleased to report as I take my leave that the system is in extremely healthy condition and the national bank charter is strong and vibrant," Hawke said in his letter informing Bush of his intention to step down. He praised the OCC as "one of the truly great agencies" in the federal government, one that has safeguarded "the interests of bank customers with great skill and diligence."
Consumer advocacy groups and some members of Congress -- including Rep. Sue W. Kelly (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Financial Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations -- have challenged the OCC's consumer record, particularly Hawke's stance that national banks are not required to abide by state consumer protection laws.
But Hawke also has been praised by consumer advocates for opposing industry-led efforts to roll back Community Reinvestment Act rules, which require banks to lend and invest in low-income or underserved communities.
"His record has been mixed," said Allen J. Fishbein, director of housing and credit policy for Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit group.
Shelby, despite past criticism of Hawke, had kind words for him yesterday. "Jerry Hawke's tenure at the OCC will be remembered as a period of growth for the national bank charter," Shelby said in a prepared statement. "I commend Jerry for his dedication to public service and wish him and his family well in the future."
OCC General Counsel Julie L. Williams will serve as acting comptroller until the president names a successor.