After five months of delays, shareholders of Independence Federal Savings Bank today are scheduled to make a decision on the future of the District's sole black-owned financial institution.
In a vote that was postponed three times since May and has taken on racial overtones, the thrift's 400 or so shareholders will pick between two opposing slates of would-be directors. On one side is a slate nominated by Independence's current board. On the other is Independence's largest shareholder, Morton A. Bender, who has nominated his own slate of directors with the hopes of removing Independence's management and eventually taking full control of the thrift. In addition to seeking more board representation, Bender has applied with federal regulators to buy at least 51 percent of Independence's stock, up from his current 21 percent stake.
Bender says it is a simple matter of righting an institution with a record of mismanagement and financial underperformance. For many shareholders and most of Independence's directors and management, however, Bender is a corporate raider whose own thrift, Rockville's Colombo Bank, was cited last year for a variety of regulatory violations. And, Bender is white, and some shareholders would like to see Independence remain in minority hands.
"It's a significant institution in the minority community, and I believe in reinvestment by that community," said Jeffrey E. Thompson, head of a prominent black-owned Washington accounting firm who recently bought a 7.2 percent stake in Independence, making him the fourth-largest shareholder in the thrift.
"Every time they get the squeeze, they pull out the race card," Bender said yesterday. "The management and the directors have only tried to entrench themselves, and they could care less if the bank doesn't make any money. . . . To some, it's a black versus white issue. Not to me."
Thomas L. Batties, Independence's chief executive, disputed the assertion that the bank has not done anything to improve its financial condition. He said that since becoming chief executive in 2002, he has revamped the thrift's back-office operations, pared its staff to cut costs and added several lending officers to increase its loan portfolio. He attributed much of Independence's losses over the past two years to legal matters, including a costly lawsuit filed by Bender.
"We have instituted and restructured the entire institution from stem to stern since I've been here," Batties said. "The only problems the bank has right now are the effects of Mr. Bender's actions to disenfranchise the other shareholders. It's an absolute lie that the board and management are trying to entrench themselves."
Batties added: "It's a green issue. Mr. Bender wants to take control of this institution without paying any money for it. It's a black-and-white issue only with respect to the fact that if Mr. Bender is successful, African Americans and other minorities will not have a bank to go to that will be perceptive to their unique financial needs."
Independence has a nine-member board. Bender already has two of his representatives on the board, and he has nominated two more for today's scheduled election.