Maryland's commissioner of banking approved the charter of a minority-owned bank this week only hours after he had lobbied members of the legislature's black caucus to support a bill pushed by the state banking industry.
Commissioner W. Holden Gibbs denied that there was any connection between his approval of the bank charter and the black legislators' support of the bill allowing banks to raise their interest rates. But, he said, "the timing (of granting the charter) was lousy."
Del. Larry Young, a member of the black caucus from Baltimore, said he learned from other caucus members Monday -- the day of the vote on the bank bill -- that "there was a great deal in the wind on a black bank we've been trying to get six years."
"I got the impression that getting it (the charter) granted would be made easier by voting for Senate Bill 92," he said, referring to the interest rate measure. Later in the day, as the vote drew closer, Young said he was told that "the charter already was granted."
Young, however, abstained from voting, saying he wanted to actually see the signed charter first because he feared he'd trade his vote "without getting anything in return for my constituents."
The banking bill had been defeated in the House of Delegates just three days earlier by a single vote. But supporters were able to reverse that defeat by turning 10 votes, including that of one black caucus member.
The caucus also helped provide the margin by which supporters of Senate Bill 92 defeated the amendment that would have made the interest rate increase temporary. That amendment was opposed by Gibbs and banking industry lobbyist William Weaver.
The banking bill raises the interest rate on many consumer loans to 18 percent -- half again as much as the current rate -- and was the industry's major objective in Annapolis this year.
The bank charter, which Gibbs signed and personally handed over to bank officials after returning to his office Monday evening, will allow Harbor Bank in Baltimore to open for business.
Harbor Bank's board of directors includes Joseph A. Chester Jr., the son of a member of the legislature's black caucus, and Frank A. DeFilippo, former aide to former Governor Marvin Mandel.
The younger Chester and Virgil Sneed, the president of Harbor's board of directors, visited Annapolis Monday and were squired about and introduced to black caucus members by Del. Hattie Harrison (D-Baltimore), one of the caucus' staunchest supporters of the banking bill.
Commissioner Gibbs, known as "Jumbo" to his friends in the banking industry, was named to the post in March 1978, by Acting Gov. Blair Lee III. Gibbs' strongest support for the job, which makes him the top state regulator of Maryland banks, came from H. Furlong Baldwin, a banker and chairman of Lee's $300,000 gubernatorial fund-raising event.
Gov. Harry Hughes said today he was "disturbed" by reports of Gibbs' role in lobbying for the bank bill. The governor said Gibbs' position on proposed legislation "should be one of informing legislators, not one as an advocate one way or another. He should not be lobbying. He's regulator of an industry."
Gibbs acknowledged that he "did get more involved in it [lobbying SB 92] than I should have," but denied there was any connection between his decision on the bank charter and the black caucus support of the bill.
He said that at a meeting in his office with several of Harbor Bank's organizers March 10, he "committed to make a decision by March 30" on whether he would approve the charter. DeFilippo recalls the same commitment made on that date.
"Frankly, I didn't know what the status of (SB) 92 was, and I didn't know it (March 30) would be a critical period of time," Gibbs said today.
In fact, on March 10, the bill was still in the hands of the House Economic Matters Committee, where Gibbs had testified in its favor and was providing information to a special subcommittee designated to deal with the interest bill. On March 18, the full committee passed the bill by an 11-to-7 vote, with the committee's four black members voting in its favor and providing the margin of victory.
Gibbs said today that on March 27 he received a telephone call from Harbor Bank president Virgil Sneed, asking how the charter application was coming along.
"I told him I'd do the homework over the weekend," Gibbs recalled. "I said 92 was on the (House) floor and I haven't had time to do the work (on the charter). And no time did I ask him to do anything or did he volunteer to do anything (to help the bill)," Gibbs said of Sneed.
Gibbs said he made the decision to approve the charter "over the weekend" before the Monday vote on SB 92.
Sneed, however, telephoned Del. Harrison, on Saturday telling her that he wanted to come to Annapolis to help support the banking bill, according to Harrison. Harrison said she introduced Sneed to several caucus members Monday, talked with him about Harbor Bank and learned from Gibbs during the day that the charter had been granted.
On Monday, Gibbs traveled here from his Baltimore office to watch the House vote on the banking bill. When he arrived he learned that two other members of the black caucus -- Delegates Howard P. Rawlings and Walter R. Dean Jr. -- wanted to meet with him.
Both the delegates and Gibbs agree that they discussed Gibbs using his influence with bank officials to get more jobs in the industry for blacks. The delegates recall that the bank charter also was discussed briefly. Gibbs, however, said he doesn't recall if it came up.
Asked if the discussion of using his influence to sway the banks' hiring policies appeared to be an offer of votes in exchange for his help. Gibbs said:
"I'm just dumb. I just didn't see it that way. All I can plead is stupidity."