* Bank operations frozen while government investigates
* Bank president also director of anti-Chavez TV station
* Arrest warrant issued for another station executive (Recasts, adds quotes from bank president)
By Frank Jack Daniel
CARACAS, June 14 (Reuters) - Venezuela on Monday took over the mid-sized Banco Federal citing liquidity problems and risk of fraud several months after President Hugo Chavez threatened the bank for links to an anti-government TV station.
Savers flocked to Banco Federal branches in Caracas on Monday to try and withdraw their savings before a freeze on accounts began mid-afternoon.
“We have taken preventative measures to try and avoid operations that could be presumed to be fraudulent,” Banking Superintendent Edgar Hernandez said.
The takeover, which could be temporary, follows a spate of nationalizations of small troubled banks at the end of last year [ID:nN07171374]. Banco Federal’s president, who is also a director of anti-Chavez TV station Globovision, denied wrongdoing.
Bank president Nelson Mezerhane said the government was taking revenge and had gutted the bank in recent months. The socialist Chavez has often taunted Mezerhane for his role at Globovision.
“This is an abuse,” Mezerhane said in a telephone call from overseas to Globovision, adding that Chavez’s threats caused a 45 percent drawdown in deposits in a week and a half last year, while major public sector clients also withdrew deposits. “Does the rule of law exist?”
Authorities have an initial 60 days to see if Banco Federal will reopen or be liquidated, the officials said, with another 60 day extension if needed.
The socialist Chavez says he is at war with ‘parasitic bourgeoisie,’ in the OPEC-member nation as he warms up for legislative elections in September. On Sunday he warned bankers that if he chose to withdraw government deposits many of their businesses would collapse. He said he had no plans to do that.
During 11 in years in power, Chavez has increased the state’s hand in the economy through nationalizations, regulation and taxes. See FACTBOX [ID:nN14220522].
His government last year bought a large bank from Spain’s Santander and took over 11 others that had been run into the ground by businessmen with links to public officials. Those banks were merged into a state-run bank called Bicentenario.
Banco Federal customers have limited access to their deposits on Monday, after which all operations will be frozen.
“They have had a permanent team inspecting us since October 2009, they haven’t let us even lift a pencil,” Mezerhane said.
The move against Banco Federal comes just days after the attorney general issued an arrest warrant for another Globovision director, Guillermo Zuloaga. The bank was often named as a possible target for a cleanup in December when the government took-over 11 troubled banks.
Zuloaga has not presented himself for arrest since the warrant was issued on Friday in relation to charges he had hoarded new cars to manipulate the price.
His lawyer Perla Jaimes told Reuters on Monday he was still “evaluating” whether to turn himself in.
“The closure of Banco Federal is related to Globovision,” she said. “The crime is a crime of opinion.”
Of the bank’s 284,000 customers, 96 percent are covered by a 30,000 bolivar ($6,970) savings per person guarantee, Hernandez said, adding that the government had the funds set aside to meet obligations to savers.
The head of the government savings guarantees body said it had still paid only some of the customers affected by the takeovers in December,
Mezerhane said the government could not be trusted to run his bank.
“They are going to destroy it, they are going to rob everything they can.”
Reporting by Eyanir Chinea, Ana Isabel Martinez, Patricia Rondon, Marianna Parraga; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Andrew Hay