Senior officers of financially troubled MNC Financial Inc., the region's biggest bank company, returned approximately $1.5 million in bonuses last month that they received without the required approval of federal banking regulators, sources said yesterday.

In addition, federal banking regulators have forced former MNC chairman Alan P. Hoblitzell Jr. to return in excess of $1 million that he received as a result of his resignation from MNC, sources said.

The MNC board of directors had authorized Hoblitzell's severance package, known as a golden parachute, in September.

MNC, parent of American Security Bank and Maryland National Bank, lost more than $440 million in 1990 because of bad real estate loans, and it has been under the close supervision of the Federal Reserve and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC).

It signed written agreements with both regulatory agencies last year that generally require agency approval for any "executive contract payments."

According to sources close to MNC, the bonuses were approved for nearly a dozen senior officers in December, a time when the bank company faced a potential cash crunch that threatened its survival.

H. Grant Hathaway, who this week was named head of both Maryland National Bank and American Security Bank, received the largest bonus at $600,000.

The same month that the MNC board of directors approved the bonuses, the board voted to eliminate the fourth-quarter dividend payment to shareholders because of the bank company's mounting financial problems.

Sources said MNC Chairman Alfred Lerner argued the bonuses were needed to retain top executive talent. Lerner did not return phone calls for comment yesterday.

MNC spokesman Daniel J. Finney said the regulators did not force MNC's senior officers to return the bonuses. Instead, he said the bank company itself decided the payments should be returned.

"MNC as a result of realizing that it had not directly followed specific procedures vis a vis regulatory approvals, voluntarily -- without assistance or direction from the regulators -- rescinded payments to certain executives," Finney said.

Finney said the bank company wrote the regulators a letter last month informing them of the mistake and subsequent correction. "We rescinded the payments to demonstrate our overriding goal of full compliance with all regulatory requirements," an attorney for MNC said yesterday.

An OCC official, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that the agency and the Fed had been informed of the payments. But the official said the bank regulators forced the officers to return the money.

"We made it very clear that this was completely unacceptable and imprudent given the financial condition of the bank," the OCC official said. "We let them know that they had to turn this deal around right away."

Other bank sources also said that all of the officers returned their payments in January after the Fed and the OCC became aware of the payments, which were noted in a report to both agencies on recent management activities.

Sources close to the bank said Hoblitzell was forced to return his severance benefits last month after the Federal Reserve decided that his severance package, which was outlined in a contract between Hoblitzell and the bank, was not prudent because of the bank's weak financial condition. Hoblitzell was chairman of MNC in the late 1980s when the bank greatly expanded its commercial real estate lending -- now the cause of much of the bank's problems. Hoblitzell declined to comment.

In addition to Hathaway and Hoblitzell, sources said other officers who received payments were Frank P. Bramble, just-named chief operating officer for both bank subsidiaries; Peter L. Gartman, just-named chief financial officer and treasurer of the parent firm and the two banks; Harry G. Pappas Jr., who just left MNC to take a job with MBNA Corp., the credit card company that MNC sold in January; and Douglas Ledwith, formerly chief financial officer for American Security Bank who has taken another position at MNC. Several other less senior officers received bonus payments, according to sources.

The senior officers of MNC who received the bonuses did not return phone calls for comment.

Daniel J. Callahan, who was just demoted from chairman to vice chairman of American Security Bank, did not receive a bonus, sources said. Nor did William Daiger, the former chairman of Maryland National Bank, who also was demoted.

Sources said the MNC board was divided over whether to pay the bonuses. The first time the measure was brought to a vote last year it was rejected, sources said, and only after heavy lobbying by Chairman Lerner was the measure passed at a second meeting.

Those who voted in favor of the bonuses included Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger, president of Loyola College in Maryland, and Benjamin R. Civiletti, managing partner of Venable, Baetjer and Howard and the former attorney general of the United States.

Though Lerner said the bonuses were needed to keep top talent, some members of the board disagreed with Lerner, saying that to vote in favor of the large bonuses was unconscionable at a time when the bank company was under so much financial strain.

Board members who voted against the bonus payments included John J. Barry, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; George L. Bunting, chairman of Noxell Corp.; A. James Clark, chairman of Clark Enterprises; Melvyn J. Estrin, chairman of Human Services Group; and Sheldon W. Fantle, former chairman of the Fantle's Drug Store chain.

None of the directors returned phone calls seeking comment.