Federal bank examiners would be barred from working at institutions they supervise for one year after leaving government under a Riggs Bank-inspired rule put forth by regulators yesterday.
The proposal, written by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Federal Reserve and the Office of Thrift Supervision -- which together regulate nearly every thrift, bank and bank-holding company in the country -- was written at the behest of Congress, which this year passed a law requiring the bank-examiner "cooling-off" period.
Under the proposal, any "senior examiner" would be barred for one year from going to work for a bank that he or she oversaw in the final 12 months of working at the regulatory agency. If a former examiner violates the provision, he could be barred for up to five years from the banking industry and pay a penalty of up to $250,000.
The law and proposed regulation were spurred by the revelation last year that Riggs's chief bank examiner from 1998 to 2002 -- R. Ashley Lee -- went to work as a Riggs vice president shortly after he left the OCC in 2002. A 2004 Senate investigation showed that the OCC's supervision of Riggs's anti-money-laundering procedures was ineffective while Lee was in charge of supervising the bank, an assertion that Comptroller John D. Hawke Jr. agreed with in congressional hearings in spring 2004. Hawke, who left his post last year, subsequently asked Congress to enact legislation requiring the one-year employment restriction.
The OCC is the largest and most powerful bank regulator, with 1,800 examiners responsible for the safety and soundness of about 2,000 banks that account for more than half of all bank assets in the country. Hawke, now in private legal practice, said that one or two chief examiners a year go to work for the bank they examined after leaving the OCC.
"There's plenty of job opportunities for examiners in the banking system," Hawke said yesterday. "So there's no compelling reason to preserve the opportunity to go to a bank you were recently in charge of examining."
Hawke said Lee may not have done anything wrong, but "certainly the appearances of him moving from one side of the table to another were just terrible for the OCC."
The Justice Department is investigating Lee's actions as a Riggs executive to determine whether they violated the existing conflict-of-interest law for federal employees, which prohibits most employees from dealing with their former agencies on matters they worked on while in government.
Lee could not be reached, and his lawyer did not return a phone call requesting comment.
The Lee investigation is only part of a broad, ongoing investigation of people associated with Riggs by the U.S. attorney's office in Washington since spring 2004. The bank pleaded guilty in January to failing to take adequate measures to prevent money laundering by former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the ruling family of Equatorial Guinea, and it paid a $16 million fine.
The only Riggs executive charged in the matter is former Riggs vice president Simon P. Kareri. Kareri and his wife are in jail awaiting trial on fraud and other charges that they allegedly embezzled money from his clients, including members of Equatorial Guinea's ruling family, and sought to launder the proceeds through offshore corporations.
Riggs was sold to PNC Financial Services Group Inc. in May.