Federal authorities said yesterday they had informed the District government during the last year of at least four city businesses that should be investigated to determine whether they are offering banking services without banking charters.

The D.C. Office of Banking and Financial Institutions has been gathering information on the businesses, which are said to be making commercial loans but not accepting deposits, said Joseph Lopes, deputy general counsel for the District's banking office.

Lopes confirmed that the four companies, identified as Banco deAsia, Travelers Bank, Prudential Bank and Lincoln Bank, are being investigated by his office in conjunction with federal agencies, including the FBI and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees national banks.

None of the addresses of the firms could be learned. Sources said two of them operate from post office boxes.

This week, Latin Investment Corp., a business that was accepting deposits and making loans to thousands of Spanish-speaking immigrants, drove that community into a panic when it closed its doors amid rumors of financial difficulties. District government officials had been aware that Latin Investment was offering banking services without a charter, but for more than two years officials did nothing to stop it.

Lopes said the District's banking office is not aware of any other businesses that are accepting deposits without permission, but he said, "There could be more of those out there."

D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), head of the council committee that oversees banking in the District, held a three-hour meeting yesterday to determine how to help the customers of Latin Investment and why it was allowed to continue operating after officials discovered it had no charter.

After listening to testimony from the banking office, the D.C. Corporation Counsel's Office and the District Office of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Garland Pinkston, acting director of intergovernmental relations, concluded that the District government has no mechanism to protect Latin Investment customers' money.

"There does not seem to be a remedy to protect the interests of the depositors," he said. "We're looking to secure assets, but we can't identify any authority {to do that} yet."

Although no solutions to the immigrants' problems were found yesterday, the meeting went far in establishing why Latin Investment was not shut down before so many people got hurt.

Because of limitations in the District's laws, Lopes said, the banking office could not determine whether Latin Investment was in fact a bank, accepting deposits and making loans.

Unlike state banking regulators who are charged with ensuring the safety and soundness of state-chartered institutions and ensuring that all businesses engaged in banking are licensed to do so, the District's banking office was set up mainly to encourage economic development.

Because of its unique purpose, the office, which is headed by the D.C. banking superintendent, has no real regulatory authority. It has a budget of more than $600,000 but it has no subpoena power, no investigative arm and only one bank examiner.

It is also the only state banking office in the nation that is part of the executive branch of government but reports to the legislative branch, Jarvis's committee on Housing and Economic Development.

Jarvis, who has fought to keep control over many decisions about local banking and whose campaign contributors include every major bank in the District, was responsible for drafting the legislation that established the office.

In June, D.C. Banking Superintendent Edward D. Irons left the office after an unsuccessful four-year effort to gain control of District banking activities, an effort that failed in part because of his lack of regulatory power and disagreement over what his role should be.

Three months before he left, Irons proposed legislation that would have clarified his role and given his office expanded powers, including the power to determine whether businesses are running banks without charters. That legislation has yet to be heard by the D.C. Council.

Jarvis would not say yesterday whether she would approve the new bill, which she said is stuck in the mayor's office.

Before the District established its banking office, the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency was responsible for monitoring banking activities in the city. An official in that office said yesterday that it was common practice for the agency to refer allegations of banks operating without permission to the FBI or U.S. Attorney's Office.

Because it has lost its regulatory oversight, the federal office said it must forward complaints to the D.C. Corporation Counsel's Office or the D.C. office of banking. But neither of those agencies can investigate or prosecute those cases.

Claude Bailey, special counsel to the D.C. Corporation Counsel, said that because the penalty for operating an illegal bank is one year in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both, his agency must pass the case to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

In March 1989, the Corporation Counsel forwarded the case against Latin Investment to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Bailey said. But it wasn't until one year later that the D.C. banking office discovered the case had been forwarded yet again, to the Internal Revenue Service.

Because of a lack of investigators, Lopes said, the IRS was asked to handle the case. But the IRS investigator would not provide Lopes with any information about the scope or status of the case.

Lopes said the IRS confirmed Thursday that it still is investigating. The U.S. Attorney's Office was not present to explain why the case was passed along.

Throughout the meeting, six Latin Investment depositors looked on. They clutched passbooks that showed savings of more than $50,000. It remains unclear how much money customers have tied up in the firm, but more than 1,500 customers, who say they deposited a total of $500,000, have surfaced so far.

"There isn't much I can say at this point to the aggrieved," said Wiley Williams, deputy mayor for economic development and acting superintendent of the banking office.

Jarvis suggested a full-court press by regulatory agencies, including the comptroller of the currency, to investigate all aspects of Latin Investment's operations. Comptroller's officials have said the matter is no longer under their jurisdiction.

Latin Investment President Fernando Leonzo assured the Spanish-speaking public yesterday through WMDO Radio Mundo that he is working to recover the money, which he said this week "was safely invested in real estate." at La Pena Center, 15th and Irving streets NW.END NOTES