At the same time that each man, woman and child in America faces a $2,000 bill to bail out greedy savings and loan operators, the industry and its Washington lobbyists are finding new ways to victimize the innocent.
And incredibly, the S&L industry still has enough pull in Washington to get away with it.
Last month, a panicked S&L regulator called her bosses in the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) in Washington to report what she thought was a real travesty.
At least one S&L in her Midwestern district was selling sensitive and confidential customer information to the highest bidders.
The Kansas City thrift regulator wanted OTS to tell her how to protect the privacy of S&L customers. What she got was a collective shrug of the shoulders. Nothing could be done.
The telephone conversation would never have taken place if the OTS were more concerned about taking care of depositors than it was about taking care of S&L operators and their lobbyists. The combination of special interest pressure and bureaucratic bungling has created an open season on S&L customers and their private files.
OTS made a feeble attempt to protect those files more than a year ago, but still did not have the gumption to stand up to the industry. Banks and S&Ls have long had the option of selling confidential information, but the practice has not been common because the institutions did not need the money badly enough.
With the S&Ls in a financial pinch, the OTS proposed a sensible regulation -- nobody sells private S&L customer information without the permission of the customer. What could be simpler?
But the S&L operators immediately saw the rub. Who in their right mind would agree to the sale of their confidential financial history and let the S&L keep the money? At the very least, the victim would be bombarded with phone calls and mail from salespeople who knew his or her account balance to the penny. At the worst, embarrassing and detrimental information could fall into the hands of strangers.
Desperate S&L operators don't see it that way. They need money, and the OTS was proposing to cut off one source. Trade groups mounted a ferocious campaign against the proposed privacy regulation. The OTS watered down the rule and put it into effect in December.
But the industry could not live with even a half-baked regulation. The U.S. Association of Thrift Holding Companies sued the OTS. And the OTS, showing its spinelessness, canceled the regulation in April.
S&L lobbyists claim they are simply entitled to the same rights that banks have to sell their information. But the banking industry, not desperate for the money, does not make a common practice of selling financial data.
The privacy issue has pitted lawyer against lawyer in the OTS. Some officials believe that a new regulation should be drafted to replace the one that was scrapped. But more influential OTS staffers, still intimidated by the S&L industry, have used every stalling tactic known to the bureaucracy.