Citicorp, the nation's largest bank company, has spent many millions of dollars during the past decade to publicize that it was more than a financial services giant. It wanted people to know it as a good corporate citizen, too.
"Our philosophy is do the right thing and make sure you get credit for it," Lucius P. Gregg, a Citicorp vice president, said last fall in describing his lobbying efforts in the District to pave the way for Citicorp's entry.
The strategy in the District, as elsewhere, was aimed at convincing lawmakers and regulators to lift barriers on what financial products banks can sell and where they can sell them. But the banking giant's "good neighbor" approach took a beating Friday, when top officials in New York acknowledged that Gregg had authorized payment of at least $28,200 of the bank's funds to Woodrow Boggs Jr., a political adviser to D.C. City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, without the approval of corporate headquarters.
Jarvis (D-Ward 4), chairman of the council committee that oversees bank licensing in the District, has directed representatives of Citicorp and four other major bank holding companies to meet with Boggs to discuss how to win council approval to open or acquire banks in the District, although Boggs had no official connection with the council.
U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova said Friday that federal prosecutors have received allegations of possible improprieties involving Boggs and Jarvis in connection with out-of-state banks. He said his staff is evaluating the information to determine whether an investigation is warranted. Citicorp, meanwhile, has recalled Gregg to New York pending the outcome of its internal investigation of the fund authorization.
"Citicorp has been trying to sell itself as a good citizen in every state capital in the U.S.," Robert Volk, a lawyer and assistant director of the Morin Center for Banking Law Studies at Boston University, said yesterday.
"Any improper attempt to influence a local government just accentuates the one main negative idea about Citicorp -- that it's a giant trying to buy its way into everywhere," he said. "Any improprieties just give congressmen who want to stop interstate banking one more reason to complain."
In an interview on Monday, Gregg said he did not know whether Citicorp had paid Boggs any money. Citicorp said that Gregg in fact had signed a contract in February with a consulting firm run by Boggs called Decisions Inc. and authorized four payments totaling $28,200.
Disclosure of the contract and payment authorization came at a crucial juncture in Citicorp's year-long push to open a full-service bank in the District. It also has made public a debate that has raged for several years among local bankers and other business leaders over whether Boggs has used his close relationship with Jarvis to enhance his private consulting business.
While Gregg was quietly dealing with Boggs, attorney Henry W. Lavine met at least twice with Boggs, at Jarvis' urging. Lavine represents Chase Manhattan Corp., J.P. Morgan & Co., Chemical New York Corp. and Bankers Trust New York Corp. Lavine said he never paid Boggs any money, although at one meeting Boggs pressed one of his business cards into Lavine's palm and said he wanted to continue their conversation later.
The District of Columbia Bankers Association and local bankers contacted yesterday said they have spoken with Boggs on occasion but have not not paid him any money.
Local bankers, who say they do not want their names used for fear of hurting their business relationship with the District government, said Jarvis has directed them to Boggs for years on banking isssues.
An official of Sovran, a Norfolk-based bank holding company that is largest in the area, said last week, "Woody was more of a sounding board about our merger," but he did not act in any official capacity.
In the past few months, Sovran completed the acquisition of D.C. National Bancorp and Suburban Bancorp of Bethesda.
Gregg of Citicorp signed the consulting contract with Boggs several weeks after the City Council gave final approval Jan. 14 to legislation backed by Jarvis to allow Citicorp and other bank companies outside a new 11-state region to enter the District. To do so, those banks would first have to agree to make a substantial financial commitment to the city, including creating 200 jobs and providing $50 million to $100 million in loans and credit to development projects in depressed areas.
The contract was signed a few weeks before Jarvis locked horns with members of Congress in March over whether the District's new regional banking laws are too permissive because they allow banks greater freedom than federal and most state laws.
The agreement came several months before Jarvis sent a letter to federal regulators urging that Citicorp's bid to acquire an ailing thrift institution in the District be approved.
Boggs, on the advice of his lawyer, has declined to comment on his dealings with Citicorp and other banks. He also has refused to make public a list of his clients.
Jarvis has described the authorization of Citicorp payments to Boggs, her longtime adviser and social companion, as "interesting" and said she is not familiar with his business dealings. "I don't know Mr. Boggs' activities and I'm not a message carrier," she said Friday. "Why should I know Mr. Boggs' business?"
Citicorp officials said Friday that Gregg was the only company official involved in the payment authorization, but the disclosure is likely to set back Citicorp's highly visible public relations efforts to gain permission to open full-service banks here.
Citicorp has pursued a similar strategy in states from Arizona to Florida. Last summer, Citicorp won approval in Maryland to open a full-service bank July 1 in exchange for locating its East Coast credit card processing plant in Hagerstown, an economically depressed area.
Last summer, Citicorp was pitted against local bankers in the District in an intense lobbying effort to shape new regional banking legislation under consideration by the City Council. Jarvis, as chairman of the Housing and Economic Development Committee, was at the center of the debate.
Citicorp sought a "trigger" provision in the legislation that would have allowed Citicorp and other banks outside the region to enter the District within two years -- or earlier if they made large investments in distressed areas.
Citicorp, in typical one-upsmanship style that overshadowed local bankers, agreed to pick up the $40,000 tab for a gala District reception at the Washington Convention Center at the opening of a Chinese trade show. It enlisted as a lobbyist the firm of Robert B. Washington Jr., a politically prominent attorney familiar with the local banking community.
Moreover, it has been the only bank company to pledge to invest $100 million in the District, create 200 jobs and open two branches in depressed areas of the city.
Barry vetoed the interstate banking legislation last fall when the council rejected his proposal to allow any bank to do business in the city if it made a substantial financial commitment to the city.
With Jarvis leading the charge, the council overrode the veto, agreeing with local bankers to permit only banks from the surrounding 11 states to cross into the District, and then only through the acquisition of local banks.
In January, however, the City Council amended the legislation to allow Citicorp and other banking behemoths to enter the District through acquisition and community investment. This time, Jarvis was behind the amendment.