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Ameriquest Could Gain From Bill

Ameriquest, the home-lending giant that spent millions of dollars to help President Bush win re-election, might benefit from a bill introduced in the House last week that could help it fend off investigations currently under way by state regulators.

Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) are sponsoring the bill, which would create federal standards for the sub-prime mortgage lending market, in which privately held Ameriquest is the largest player.

Though the Ney-Kanjorski legislation was crafted as a compromise between the industry and consumer advocates, it would require that federal law pre-empt the patchwork of state laws that currently regulates the market.

That could come as good news to Ameriquest, which last week was questioned by attorneys general and regulators in 25 states about the company’s lending practices.

Last week, the company agreed to pay as much as $50 million to settle a class-action lawsuit in which borrowers from four states alleged that the company cheated them.

Separately, Connecticut’s banking commissioner announced this month that he was barring the company from doing business there.

In addition, Ameriquest faces a coordinated challenge from the state attorneys general. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said in an interview that he is concerned with the fees Ameriquest charges to refinance loans to existing customers.

But Blumenthal and other attorneys general might be pre-empted by passage of the Ney-Kanjorski bill, said Greg Mesack, a senior lobbyist for America’s Community Bankers and Ney’s legislative director until July.

“If they’re investigating Ameriquest for violating state lending laws, then those laws would no longer apply,” he said.

However, not everyone agrees with Mesack’s interpretation, including one of the bill’s authors. Kanjorski said the legislation was written prospectively, so he didn’t believe it would affect the states’ inquiry into Ameriquest for possible past misdeeds.

“It wasn’t our intent to do that,” he said. “If that is in there, we’d want to correct it, but I don’t believe it is.”

Still, at the very least, the legislation would free Ameriquest from worrying about future state investigations. Moreover, Ameriquest and other sub-prime lenders who lack a federal charter would benefit by no longer having to comply with state and local laws, ACB’s Mesack said.

“More and more of those ordinances are popping up, and it really adds to their cost of business,” Mesack said. Currently, federally chartered banks that compete in the sub-prime lending market enjoy an advantage, since their charter exempts them from complying with the assortment of regulations on the books in states and localities.

Charles Sipkins, a spokesman for California-based Ameriquest, said the company “does not comment on specific regulatory inquiries.”

“However,” he added, “we are working to resolve the issues under discussion with these agencies. Ameriquest is committed to providing customers with the credit they deserve to achieve their financial goals.”

Blumenthal, however, said the states are seriously considering action. “We may take action shortly,” he said last week. “There are negotiations, but I can’t predict whether they’ll be successful. There remains a real chance of litigation.”

He declined to discuss details of the talks or the states’ timeline for action.

The Ney-Kanjorski bill is an update of one that Ney backed last session but never managed to move out of committee. Kanjorski said that in an effort to craft the new version, lawmakers convened several exhaustive meetings of stakeholders, including industry regulators and consumer advocates.

“It was completely done before [the states’ Ameriquest inquiries] were knowable,” he said.

In the meantime, another bill aimed at applying a national standard to the sub-prime lending industry has also been introduced in the House. But this one would not pre-empt state laws.

Sponsored by North Carolina Democratic Reps. Brad Miller and Mel Watt, the bill is modeled after tough legislation their state passed to crack down on what critics call “predatory lending.”

Neither the Ney-Kanjorski nor the Miller-Watt bill has been scheduled for a hearing in the House Financial Services Committee, according to a committee spokeswoman. But Brian Walsh, spokesman for Ney, said he expects their bill to be taken up by late April.

The flurry of activity comes at a time when the sub-prime lending industry has experienced rapid growth — and increasing scrutiny.

Sub-prime loans, which now account for 20 percent of all mortgages, enable borrowers with less-than-perfect credit ratings to receive a home loan. But to offset the greater risk of default, they typically carry either high interest rates, other expensive fees, or both. Even rates that are only tenths of a percentage point higher than the prime rate can mean thousands of extra dollars in interest payments for the borrower.

Following up on complaints by consumers, consumer groups and state regulators have taken the industry to task in recent years for practices that allegedly trap borrowers with high fees and avoidable foreclosures.

In the absence of a strong federal law, many states, and some cities, have passed their own legislation to crack down on these controversial lending practices.

Industry officials and consumer advocates said the Ney-Kanjorski bill represents a compromise approach to replacing the patchwork of state laws with a national one.

Several industry sources said the bill was principally drafted by Wright Andrews, a lobbyist and the executive director of the Coalition for Fair and Affordable Lending, which represents several lending powerhouses.

But Andrews denies that. “I wish I had,” he said. “If I had drafted the bill, I assure you it would look a lot different.”

Andrews said he did participate, but only with other stakeholders, including industry regulators and consumer groups, in roundtable discussions on the legislation. Spokesmen for the sponsors said the language was written by staff.

Andrews’ coalition, set up three years ago, includes such lending players as Option One and New Century — though not Ameriquest.

Ameriquest, Andrews explained, is “on their own. Different companies want to do things different ways.”

As it happens, Andrews’ wife, Lisa, is Ameriquest’s top lobbyist. She declined to comment on her activities for the company.

All told, Ameriquest maintains a lean lobbying presence in Washington. Andrews is the company’s only registered lobbyist in D.C., and she was only recently brought in-house. Last year, she represented them from a firm called Washington Communications Group, which listed Ameriquest as its only client.

Instead, the company has focused its Washington efforts on fundraising. Its owners, Ronald and Dawn Arnall, last year contributed $5 million to Progress for America, the 527 group that sponsored ads supporting Bush. After Bush won re-election, the couple kicked in an additional $1 million to his inaugural committee.

The giving marks a turnaround for the Arnalls, who, until Bush’s election, largely backed Democrats. Roland Arnall contributed $360,000 to the Democratic National Committee in the 2000 cycle, and $1,000 each to Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

After President Bush first won the White House, Arnall found a number of channels to direct his cash the president’s way. He gave $1.8 million to first lady Laura Bush’s library foundation, personally contributed $2,000 to Bush-Cheney ’04 Inc. and served as a “Ranger” for the campaign, rounding up at least $200,000 for the president’s re-election effort.

Ameriquest last year signed a 30-year deal — worth a reported $75 million — for the naming rights to the Texas Rangers stadium, for which Bush helped secure funding when he owned the team in the early 1990s.

While Ameriquest employees gave nearly $150,000 to Bush last year, they gave little to Congressional candidates, and nothing to either Ney or Kanjorski. The company does not have a PAC.

Ameriquest spokesman Sipkins said the company does not comment on the Arnalls’ giving, and industry representatives said they were unsure of the motivation behind it.

“I don’t know what the philosophy is,” said Jeffrey Zeltzer, executive director of the National Home Equity Mortgage Association, which includes Ameriquest. “I’m a bit in the dark on how those decisions are made.”

Matt Mayers, a lobbyist for the consumer group ACORN, which has often confronted Ameriquest about its practices, was similarly stumped. “It’s not as though the White House is the moving force on this legislation,” he said.

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