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OneUnited faces further US scrutiny

Treasury steps in after skipped aid payments

Kevin Cohee, chief executive of OneUnited. Kevin Cohee, chief executive of OneUnited.
By Beth Healy
Globe Staff / April 7, 2011

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The US Treasury Department is stepping up its oversight of troubled OneUnited Bank in Boston, in a sign that the government is concerned about the institution’s ability to repay $12 million in bailout funds.

A Treasury spokesman confirmed that the department has assigned an official to attend the bank’s board meetings, a step it has taken at just 30 institutions around the country. OneUnited is the only Massachusetts bank being monitored in this way.

The government is sending these boardroom observers to banks — most of them small, community institutions — that have not yet repaid their government bailout funds, and have missed at least five interest payments on the money. OneUnited, with offices in Boston, Los Angeles, and Miami, has skipped eight quarterly payments and won’t say when it can repay the capital infusion it received from the Treasury in the early days of the financial crisis.

OneUnited executives declined to discuss the new Treasury monitor for their board meetings.

The increased financial scrutiny of OneUnited, among the nation’s largest black-owned banks, follows criticism that the institution, led by chief executive Kevin Cohee, has fallen short in its urban lending mission yet received preferential political treatment. The bank’s top executives secured a meeting with Treasury officials to seek bailout funds in late 2008, with the help of US Representative Maxine Waters. The Los Angeles Democrat was the subject of a House Ethics Committee investigation in the matter, because her husband was an investor with the bank and had previously served on OneUnited’s board.

Waters has denied wrongdoing; the ethics investigation has been put on hold.

The Obama administration is touting the Troubled Asset Relief Program as a success. TARP provided $245 billion to stabilize 763 banks and other financial institutions amid the global credit crisis in 2008. Most of the giant banks have repaid their bailouts, plus interest, resulting in a profit to taxpayers. But hundreds of smaller banks are struggling to repay the money. Now, Treasury officials face the possibility that OneUnited and scores of other small banks will never repay the funds.

But there is little political support for forgiving the loans. US Representative Barney Frank, the Newton Democrat who ran the House Financial Services Committee when the bailout bill was written and made sure it included OneUnited and other small banks, says he wants the money repaid. Frank “is not in favor of amnesty, period,’’ his spokesman, Harry Gural, said.

OneUnited, in a statement, said, “We are actively engaged in raising capital to develop new programs to serve urban communities and to repay TARP funds.’’

Linus Wilson, a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who tracks TARP, said 658 banks have funds outstanding, and 164 of them, or 25 percent, are skipping dividend payments, like OneUnited.

“Many small banks will find it impossible to repay TARP,’’ Wilson said.

He believes a large number of small banks will try to take advantage of a new program to refinance their bailouts into small business lending funds.

Banks have to qualify for the Small Business Lending Fund program, under which they can pay lower dividends than they would have to under TARP. OneUnited, in a statement, said, “We are not focused on this program at the moment.’’

OneUnited agreed, according to a Treasury report last month, to allow a government observer to attend its board meetings. The Treasury also still could exercise its right to name two people to the board. OneUnited recently has added two new directors of its own, for a total of 11, including Cohee and his wife, Teri Williams, the bank’s president.

Christopher Cole, senior regulatory counsel at the Independent Community Bankers of America, a Washington lobbying group, said in many cases, bankers want to pay TARP dividends, but regulators are telling them to wait, and to conserve funds.

“It’s been the bank regulators that have been part of the problem,’’ Cole said.

Beth Healy can be reached at bhealy@globe.com.