District officials have begun discussing with local banks a plan to bail out the 3,000 Spanish-speaking immigrants who deposited their money in the now-bankrupt Latin Investment Corp., according to a government source.

Under the plan, a local bank would pay off the depositors, who say they are owed at least $6.8 million.

In return, the bank would get title to the real estate holdings and other assets of Latin Investment, which was offering banking services without a charter and without federal deposit insurance.

Such a bailout would be similar to a payoff that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. would have provided had Latin Investment been federally insured.

One obstacle to the bailout plan is the uncertainty surrounding the value of Latin Investment's assets, which would be sold by the bank to offset the cost of paying depositors what they are owed.

It is also unclear whether federal banking regulators would allow a local financial institution to provide such a bailout.

It could not be learned which local financial institutions were involved in the discussions.

However, District officials said Friday that they were encouraged by preliminary talks.

Any bank that agreed to such a proposal would expand its reach into the fast-growing Hispanic community in the District, now estimated to number more than 80,000 people, a D.C. official said.

The depositors are trying to recover their funds through a bankruptcy procedure, a drawn-out process that does not guarantee a 100 percent return on deposits.

The Securities and Exchange Commission also is trying to help the immigrants recover their money by seizing the personal assets of Latin Investment's owners.

However, that process also would be lengthier than a depositor bailout.

"It is our hope to get {a bailout plan} before the bankruptcy trustee as an option to recompense depositors as soon as possible," said a D.C. official familiar with the bailout discussions.

Accountants with Arthur Andersen & Co. have spent the last week poring over financial records of Latin Investment, which closed Nov. 29 amid financial difficulties. A 1988 balance sheet showed that Latin Investment owned at least 20 rental properties in the District and the majority stake of El Latino newspaper, the area's largest Spanish-language weekly.

Court records show that depositors' money also was used to finance the personal business ventures and housing purchases of Latin Investment's owners: Fernando Leonzo, president; Jose A. Cortes, vice president; and Leonel Salinas, secretary.

It could be difficult for those personal assets to be transferred to a bank as part of a bailout plan.

Meanwhile, officials with the District's Office of Banking and Financial Institutions met with a representative of the U.S. Attorney's Office on Jan. 3 in the first clear indication that the U.S. attorney is moving forward with an investigation into Latin Investment's practices.

Representatives of the FBI and the D.C. police also attended the meeting.

Shortly after Latin Investment closed, it was learned that at least six local and federal agencies -- including the D.C. banking office and the U.S. Attorney's Office -- had known for more than two years that the company was conducting banking operations without a banking charter, but they took no action.

Joseph Lopes, deputy general counsel for the banking office, said investigations also were moving forward concerning the operations of two other firms in the District that offered banking services.

Casa Latinoamericana de Inversiones, a firm similar to Latin Investment, closed Dec. 10 because the owners could not cover all the withdrawals being made by customers frightened by the Latin Investment situation.

Community Credit Union Services, a chain of three businesses, is still operating.

Those investigations could test a new emergency statute passed by the D.C. Council that gives expanded authority to the banking office.

The temporary statute, passed by the council on Dec. 18, gives the office the authority to audit a firm, conduct hearings and, ultimately, to shut it down and appoint a receiver for its assets if the firm is found to be operating without a license.

Lopes said the investigations were moving slowly, despite the expanded authorities, because the banking office remains short-staffed.

"We have three professional staff members and two clerical," Lopes said.

The office has not had a permanent superintendent since Edward D. Irons left the job in June.

"If we're going to continue investigations and approve charters and do everything else, we need people," Lopes said.

As the investigations continue, activists in the Hispanic community are voicing concern that help in the form of donations for Latin Investment customers has fallen off since the holidays.

Almost $10,000 has been raised for them since the crisis began, said Elaine Grant, executive director of the Wilson Community Center in Adams-Morgan.

But as the depositors prepare for a long wait to recover their money, the economy and seasonal cutbacks are starting to hit the community hard with job layoffs.

"The immediate impact may not be devastating," said Rita Soler Ossolinski, acting director of the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs. "But the long-term impact is going to be."