Maryland's commissioner of banking relaxed one of his usual standards for approving a new state bank to grant the charter this week of a politically well-connected minority-owned bank in Baltimore.
Gov. Harry Hughes has ordered an inquiry into the bank's approval by Commissioner W. Holden Gibbs, who signed the charter only hours after the legislature's black caucus helped ensure passage for a bill pushed by his office and the state banking industry.
Gibbs denies that there was a connection between his approval of the 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."
Gibbs said today that the "normal" amount of capital required to win charter approval in Maryland is $2 million. But Harbor Bank had only $1.5 million in capital -- one third of that amount coming from a long-term loan -- when Gibbs approved the charter this week.
Meeting the higher requirement would have been virtually impossible for Harbor's organizers, who tried unsuccessfully for six years to gather $1.5 million in capital to gain a federal charter. Last year they abandoned that attempt and turned to the state.
Gibbs said today that the $2 million minimum requirement is not "hard and fast. Yes, I broke policy, but I'd done it before. So it wasn't unusual." Gibbs said he had approved the charter last year of the First Women's Bank in Rockville, which had $1.8 million in capital.
Organizers of the Harbor Bank approached Gibbs through the influential South Baltimore senator, Harry J. McGuirk, who said he acted as a "conduit" for the bank organizers.
McGuirk, who chairs the Senate committee through which banking legislation must pass, said he called Gibbs on behalf of the bank organizers and joined them in a meeting with Gibbs last year.
McGuirk said today that he helped the bank officials, whom he did not know beforehand, because they called him and because "anybody that has a problem and calls me, I help."
McGuirk said that meeting was his only contact with the bank or its organizers.
Subsequently, Gibbs informed the organizers in a letter that he was relaxing the $2 million requirement. A copy of the letter went to McGuirk, both men acknowledged today.
The bank's incorporators include a former aide to former governor Marvin Mandel, Frank A. DeFilippo, and the son of Del. Joseph Chester Sr., a member of the black caucus.
On Thursday, Hughes ordered his secretary of licensing and regulation, who is Gibbs' boss, to investigate the circumstances surrounding the bank's charter.This came after reports that a member of the black caucus learned from other black legislators Monday -- the day of the vote on the bank bill -- that "there was a deal in the wind on a black bank" and that supporting the bill would help gain the charter.
The bank bill -- the chief goal of the industry this session -- had lost by a single vote in the House of Delegates just three days earlier. But supporters were able to reverse that defeat on Monday by turning 10 votes around, including that of one member of the black caucus.
Gibbs, who had come to Annapolis to watch the vote Monday, returned to his office Monday evening, signed the charter and turned it over to one of the bank officials.
The bank commissioner, a former bank vice president, said he had made the decision over the weekend to approve the charter. He said that at a meeting with bank organizers March 10 he promised to make his decision by March 30. DeFilippo recalls the same commitment.
But that date fell on Sunday. And Gibbs actually signed the charter Monday evening after the vote.