Business

OneUnited Bank gets ‘Needs to Improve’ on community lending

OneUnited Bank has its roots and headquarters in Boston, but most business is conducted from Los Angeles.
OneUnited Bank has its roots and headquarters in Boston, but most business is conducted from Los Angeles.

It’s been more than two years since Boston has heard from Kevin Cohee, the voluble and controversial chief executive of OneUnited Bank.

His bank has weathered scandals, a government bailout, and, most recently, a costly legal battle with a famous black church. What brought him to the phone on Wednesday was an embarrassing report card from regulators, saying the nation’s largest bank owned by African-Americans received a “Needs to Improve” rating for its paltry community lending in Boston and Miami over the past three years.

“We do not think the report is fair or accurate,’’ Cohee said in an interview from Los Angeles, where the bank now does most of its business, far from its Boston roots and headquarters. “We clearly believe it’s an inappropriate conclusion given the loans made by the bank in minority communities.”

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In fact, this is the second straight “Needs to Improve” rating for a $612 million institution that has reaped more headlines for its problems than for lending in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods in recent years.

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The newly released report by state and federal banking regulators evaluates OneUnited’s performance under the Community Reinvestment Act, a law that requires all banks to make loans in the neighborhoods where they accept deposits, including to people with modest incomes.

“Overall, the bank’s lending activities are less than reasonable,’’ the report concluded.

While OneUnited has grown its operations in the Los Angeles area, regulators from the Massachusetts Division of Banks and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said there has been “minimal lending activity” in Boston. They also cited a lack of lending in the Miami market that amounted to “Substantial Noncompliance.”

OneUnited has made or purchased just 34 loans in Massachusetts in three years, according to the report. Of those, 26 took place in Suffolk County, where the bank operates three offices.

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In 2013, the bank expanded lending and refinancing for mostly multifamily properties in Los Angeles, issuing 78 loans. But it made just eight loans in Boston and three in Miami.

Nationally, only nine of the bank’s loans last year were made to low- or moderate-income borrowers.

Kenneth H. Thomas, a Community Reinvestment Act specialist in Miami, said, “The whole concept of why we have CRA is you put money back in the communities you take the deposits out of — you recycle it back in. You have a bank here that’s doing just the opposite.”

Cohee said minority-owned banks should not be measured the same way a large bank is judged on community lending. OneUnited says 65 percent of its loan portfolio is in minority or moderate- to low-income neighborhoods.

Loans in such areas, “while appropriate to support the economic development of these communities,’’ Cohee said, “have unique, riskier profiles.”

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A case in point, he said, was the bank’s $4 million construction loan to the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2007, to build a Roxbury community center. When Charles Street couldn’t repay the money, after several extensions, the bank planned to auction off the main church building.

There was a huge public outcry, from members of a congregation founded by abolitionists to politicians and academics who offered to mediate. But Cohee wouldn’t budge. Indeed, he did not even answer the calls of city councilors or Harvard law Professor Charles Ogletree.

The church filed for bankruptcy protection in March 2012 and the case is still not resolved. OneUnited Bank has spent more than $2.8 million in legal fees, according to a court filing.

“The Charles Street loan is a real setback to the minority community,’’ Cohee said in his first public remarks on a high-profile case that had his wife, OneUnited president Teri Williams, in court for many hours over the past two years.

“If Charles Street is able to evade its debt, that’s going to have a chilling effect for a long time on the ability of churches and other nonprofits’’ to obtain loans, Cohee said. He blamed what he called the interference of church advisers from the Boston equity firm Bain Capital for trying to broker a settlement he found offensively low.

“Misguided members of the community becoming involved in this have resulted in literally millions of dollars in legal fees,’’ he said.

And Cohee shows no sign of wanting to wrap up the fight. A judge is holding $3 million raised in the sale of the church’s unfinished community center, and other properties, until all the legal proceedings are completed.

“I’m always optimistic we can settle,” said Ross Martin, a lawyer who represents the church. “But three times outside parties have tried to help settle the case. And it hasn’t worked.”

The bank has grown by 18 percent since 2010, despite a host of problems.

When OneUnited lost money on mortgage agency investments in 2008, Cohee landed a $12 million bailout from the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program. The bank is the only one in Massachusetts that has not repaid the funds.

“We don’t owe anybody anything,’’ Cohee said. “The Treasury is a shareholder just like I’m a shareholder.”

The capital infusion sparked an ethics investigation of California Representative Maxine Waters, whose staffer allegedly helped OneUnited land a meeting with US Treasury officials that led to the funding. Waters has been cleared of any wrongdoing.

Amid scrutiny of the bank’s TARP funding, details emerged of OneUnited’s poor financial condition, as well as bank-funded luxury cars and a Santa Monica mansion that regulators forced OneUnited to sell.

Lately, Cohee said, he has talked to regulators about changing the way they judge minority-owned banks.

“The bank doesn’t see itself as defined by geography,’’ Cohee said, “and not by how many loans it did in Miami or Boston.”

Beth Healy can be reached at beth.healy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @HealyBeth.