N.C. Leader Joins Push To Halt B of A Program

N.C. leader joins push to halt B of A program

Tampa Bay Business Journal
March 19, 2007

Tampa Bay's second largest bank has gained a hometown foe to plans that could lead it to do business with illegal aliens.

U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick is joining the fight to shut down Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America Corp.'s program to give credit cards to customers without Social Security numbers — in more ways than one.

The seven-term Charlotte congresswoman is co-sponsoring legislation that would kill the controversial credit-card offer and she also is pulling her banking business from BofA (NYSE: BAC), one of her biggest political donors.

“I have been with them for a long time, but this was just the straw that breaks the camel's back in my mind,” said Myrick, who said she is in the process of moving her accounts to Wachovia Corp. because the BofA program launched in Los Angeles is likely to be rolled out nationally. “If I believe something, I'm going to stand by my principles. I'm not going to be a hypocrite and have my banking there and feel the way I do.”

The bank switch has Tampa Bay applications, where, like in Charlotte, the two banks are major rivals.

As of June 30, the most recent date for which information is available, BofA had 172 offices, $15.3 billion in deposits and a 22.68 percent market share in Tampa Bay, putting it ahead of Wachovia (NYSE: WB), with 187 offices, $11.4 billion in deposits and an 16.87 percent market share, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

The bill Myrick is backing would limit the forms of identification banks can accept from customers. It would directly affect the BofA effort, which has received criticism because it offers credit cards to customers without Social Security numbers, a group that can include illegal immigrants.

BofA Chief Executive Officer Ken Lewis has noted the bank is operating within the law, and he said BofA does not want to discriminate against customers who are eligible for its services. While he has conceded illegal immigrants could qualify for the program, he has said more than 80 percent of the participants in the program have Social Security numbers.

A bank spokeswoman declined to comment.

Myrick is co-sponsoring a bill introduced by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, earlier this month. The Photo Identification Security Act would place restrictions on the forms of identification banks can accept before opening an account for a customer — only Social Security cards, passports or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services photo ID cards would be allowed.

Rep. Mel Watt, who serves on the House Financial Services Committee and represents North Carolina's 12th District, said it's unreasonable to ask financial institutions to check the immigration status of its customers. While he calls illegal immigration an “emotional issue,” he said he hasn't received much feedback from constituents regarding the BofA program.

“It's not an issue that I think is high on a lot of people's radar screens,” he said.

Under the Patriot Act, banks are allowed to open accounts for customers who don't have Social Security numbers but who provide alternate forms of identification, such as an individual taxpayer identification number or a matricula consular, an ID card provided by the Mexican consulate to its citizens.

In late 2005, Myrick sponsored the Transportation Revenue Ultimatum Enforcement ID Act, a bill that would have prevented states from accepting individual taxpayer identification numbers as proof of identification from individuals applying for a driver's license.

The controversial Real ID Act was passed into law that same year, and it aims to tighten standards around driver's licenses. But earlier this month, the White House pushed its implementation back until 2009.

“My concern is the same it's been from day one — we need to know who's in this country and have positive identification of people,” Myrick said, adding the Blackburn bill is “another step in that direction.”

BofA and Lewis were contributors to Myrick's campaign during the 2006 election cycle. Myrick, who represents North Carolina's Ninth District, received $10,000 from two of the bank's political action committees, as well as $4,900 from Lewis personally, according to Federal Election Commission data.

That $14,900 made BofA the second-largest contributor to the Myrick campaign during the 2006 election cycle, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks money in politics. Wachovia — its political action committees and employees — gave $19,800 to Myrick's campaign and was her largest contributor.

Myrick said she notified BofA in February that she planned to speak out against the bank's pilot program.

“They just said that they understood that I had to do what I had to do,” she said. “I don't make my decisions based on who's going to support me or who's going to give me money or anything like that. I make my decisions on what I believe and on what the people in my district believe and what I think is right.”

Although BofA has received some backlash, analysts have called the pilot program innovative and say it could help the bank gain share in the fast-growing Hispanic market in the United States. In an opinion column in The Wall Street Journal, Lewis wrote that the pilot program was not aimed at illegal immigrants and will continue despite the objections of some customers.

Before BofA launched its program, Citigroup (NYSE: C) had been offering credit cards to customers without Social Security numbers and Wells Fargo & Co. NYSE: WFC) has said it is exploring the idea. Wachovia has said it has no such plans.

“I think it's a very smart move by them,” Myrick said of her new bank.