U.S. regulator says settlements with banks are appropriate

WASHINGTON Tue Feb 26, 2013 12:02pm EST

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WASHINGTON Feb 26 (Reuters) - A top U.S. bank regulator on Tuesday offered a lengthy defense of entering into settlements with banks, taking a swipe at critics who have questioned whether regulators are aggressive enough in taking banks to trial.

Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry said his agency's main goal as a prudential supervisor is to fix problems and make sure that federal banks operate in a safe and sound manner.

"The purpose of our actions is not to punish banks or make examples of anyone," Curry said in a speech before state attorneys general in Washington.

"We are very different from agencies like the Department of Justice, which is authorized under the law to bring actions for punitive purposes, including criminal actions, against institutions and individuals," he said, according to prepared remarks.

Earlier this month freshman U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren took regulators to task at a Senate hearing for what she perceived as their lenient treatment of financial institutions engaging in misconduct.

In an exchange that drew applause from protesters in the audience, Warren demanded to know the last time banking and financial market regulators had taken Wall Street banks to trial, as opposed to settling the cases.

Regulators and law enforcement authorities have faced criticism in the aftermath of the financial crisis for bringing few cases that appear to target the higher echelons of Wall Street for their roles in the collapse.

Online video clips of Warren's exchange, in which regulators stumbled to respond, have received more than 1 million hits.

On Tuesday, Curry directly responded to that criticism.

He said it was more important for his agency to move quickly to force remedial action at a bank, and only later assess appropriate penalties if necessary.

Litigated cases, on the other hand, are uncertain and take a long time to resolve, while victims in consumer cases could be waiting years for relief, he said.

"There is a tendency among some to automatically dismiss any enforcement action we take against a large institution as insufficiently severe, but that criticism misses the mark," Curry said.

The agency's actions force banks to change policies, adjust their controls, and in certain cases, pay hefty fines, he said. (Reporting By Aruna Viswanatha; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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