Bank Job

          MINNESOTA ACORN WAS barking at Norwest Bank's heels again last month, releasing a third report on Norwest practices that take advantage of low-income and minority customers. ACORN's first report, you'll recall, detailed how Norwest lures new customers with "free" checking accounts--and then reaps enormous profits when customers bounce checks or use its ATMs. (The bank earned $20 million in annual profits in the metro area from bounced checks alone.) The second ACORN report accused Norwest of redlining--deliberately pricing services out of the range of low-income individuals. The latest report attacks the bank for its ownership of Community Credit (CC), a financing company that preys on people with poor credit by soaking them with exorbitant interest rates.

          According to ACORN board member Alton Bennett, customers who are turned down for Norwest loans are referred to CC. "This is clearly a conflict of interest," he says. Bennett and others contend that in addition to inflated interest rates, CC also illegally requires credit insurance, a mechanism that protects the loan principal should a customer lose his job, become ill, or die.

          This week, Bennett and other ACORN members will meet with Norwest officers in hopes of developing a banking package that caters to low- and moderate-income individuals. But he is skeptical about Norwest's and other banks' willingness to reform the industry. "This happens as part of the poverty industry," says Bennett. "Banks are making it difficult for low-income people to do banking at all, let alone [borrowing]."

          IT'S EASY TO mock John Derus's contention that the Star Tribune intentionally ruined the state Senate primary for him by running his portrait next to a headline about charity fraud on Election Day. But whether conspiracy or incompetence, it's not the first time the Newspaper of the Twin Cities has mysteriously screwed up in a Derus primary: In 1992, the paper's guide to Hennepin County board races stuck Tom Dorholt, who was running against Derus, into the lineup of candidates challenging Peter McLaughlin instead. Some northsiders insist that had that not happened, Dorholt would have weakened--perhaps fatally--the support of Mike Opat, who ended up defeating Derus after an 18-year reign.

          JOEL LINARES WON'T have his day in court--in Minnesota, anyway. U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis has dismissed the suit brought in the Guatemalan teenager's name against H.B. Fuller, the St. Paul-based chemical giant whose products include a shoe glue called Resistol. Like many Central American street kids, Linares had developed a major Resistol-sniffing habit (among other things, the fumes dull hunger and fear); he died in 1993. In his ruling, Davis agreed with Fuller's contention that since Resistol is produced by its Guatemalan subsidiary, the case didn't belong in St. Paul. Linares attorney Scott Hendler says he may appeal. And, he adds, he's made contact with several dozen more street children who are afflicted with "documented neurological damage caused by sniffing Resistol." They, too, are willing to sue in any court that will have them.

          JUDGE DAVIS DOESN'T always come out on the side of big corporations. The Eighth District Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld his 1995 ruling that the Rent-A-Center chain violates the state usury statute by charging what critics say amounts to interest rates of up to 200 percent. Companies selling goods on credit--which is what Davis found Rent-A-Center does, despite its name--may charge no more than 8 percent per year. Attorneys speculate that the company, based in Wichita, Kansas, and owned by a British conglomerate, may have to cough up as much as $30 million in cash settlements to mostly poor, urban consumers.

          WILLING TO GUESS who spent the most twisting Minnesota legislators' arms during last spring's session? Northwest Airlines didn't have a dog in the race this time; neither did Northern States Power. Instead, the top five, according to the state Ethical Practices Board, were:

Insurance Federation of Minnesota: $111,000

Minneapolis Community Development Agency: $107,000.

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce: $81,000.

City of Minneapolis: $81,000.

Minnesota Twins: $75,000.

          It's hard not to notice what potentially huge legislative issue four of those five entities have in common. And if you think $344,000 is a lot of money--three-quarters of it, incidentally, taxpayer money--wait until the debate over a new Twins stadium gets going in earnest next session.

          SIGN POSTED ON the Braemar golf course in Edina: Caution Wasps. (Thanks to a poster on the Internet's MN-politics list).

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