Top Banking Lawyer Pined for a Literary Life

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John D. Hawke Jr., who died at the age of 88, regulated the national banks and Hunter S. Debated literature with Thompson.

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Those dreams were shattered after his younger brother, a law student at Columbia University, persuaded him to enroll there. Re-employing his language skills, Mr. Hawke became editor-in-chief of Columbia’s Law Review and received his law degree in 1960. From there he majored in banking law, worked for the Federal Reserve and the Treasury, and became president of the law firm Arnold & Porter. ,

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His services were in demand amid waves of mergers between financial institutions of all kinds, making him one of the country’s best-known banking lawyers.

Seen by many as his fate, Mr Hawke was appointed in 1998 to head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, or OCC, the regulator of national banks. During the nearly six years in that position, he attempted to improve the OCC’s ability to spot early signs of trouble in the financial system, a program he called Project Canary. The OCC cracked down on abusive practices by payday lenders and credit-card issuers. He fought turf battles with state regulators—notably Eliot Spitzer, then New York’s attorney general, in an effort to maintain the OCC’s pre-eminence overseeing national banks.

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Mr Hawke died on January 3 at his home in Washington, DC. He was 88 years old and had cancer.

He was born in New York City as John Daniel Hawk Jr. on June 26, 1933, and raised in Long Island, Rockville Center. His father was a broker in the cloth business, while his mother took care of the household.

He played the bugle and received the rank of Eagle Scout. During World War II, his father was a local air-raid warden who enforced night-time blackouts to avoid providing targets for any enemy aircraft approaching Long Island, a responsibility that left young Jerry. left in amazement. “Our house became a command post when a village-wide exercise was on alert,” he recalled.

In the late 1940s, he scoured Army-Navy surplus reserves to consolidate the collection of military insignia.

After graduating from Columbia, he served as a federal appeals-court judge’s clerk and as an attorney for the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Education. He joined Arnold & Porter in 1962.

His specialty of handling banking matters, he later told the ABA Banking Journal, was “purely an accident.” As a new hire at Arnold & Porter, he inherited responsibility from a late attorney for a lawsuit involving a dispute at a bank branch in Patchogue, NY, his work on the case so influencing colleagues that he had to take on banking. The firm’s resident became known as the specialist. , a feature that will become increasingly important as banks spread across the country merge with each other and the walls between the different forms of financial service will be pulled down.

In the mid-1970s, he served as general counsel to the Federal Reserve Board. Prior to heading the OCC, he was Under Secretary of the Treasury for Domestic Finance.

At the OCC, he spent some of his time on marketing missions, encouraging more financial institutions to become national banks, under the agency’s supervision. Banks can choose either state or federal regulators. Because the OCC and state banking departments relied on fees paid by the institutions they regulated, they struggled to attract more of them, as the merger reduced the number of banks.

The OCC can promise federally chartered banks a uniform set of rules, in contrast to the complexities of compliance with varying state standards. So the OCC was eager to fend off state regulators with conflicting regulations affecting national banks. Under Mr. Hawke, the OCC published rules aimed at limiting the role of states in oversight of national banks.

State officials insisted they were close to action and were therefore in a better position to protect consumers from abusive lending practices. Mr Spitzer alleged that the OCC aims to “remove some of the voices protecting the most vulnerable” from predatory debt.

“Crap,” Mr Hawke replied in 2004 when asked about the issue. The conflict between state and federal regulators has intensified since then.

After the mortgage-default crisis of 2007–08, the OCC and other regulators faced criticism for failing to do more to discourage lending excesses. Mr Hawke’s successor in the OCC, John C. Dugan, told the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in 2010 that as lenders lowered standards for documenting ability to repay debt, “we should have acted quicker and stronger.” Mr Hawke said the problems did not arise from the OCC’s conflict with state regulators.

Early in his career, Mr. Hawke met Josephine Marie Redden during a visit to San Francisco in 1961. Friends had asked to give him a box of sugar cookies. They married in 1962. He died in 1991. Mr Hawke’s survivors include four children, three grandchildren, a brother, a sister, and his longtime partner, Beverly Baker.

Mr Hawke never lost his craving for literature and art. He acknowledged that “excessive amounts of money have been spent on records and books.” He studied Italian Renaissance painting and collected Mata Ortiz pottery. His poems include one that describes a Saturday morning visit to Zaber’s grocery store in Manhattan.

Years after his first literary discussion with Hunter Thompson, Mr Hawke occasionally answered late-night calls from the author, who once woke up a sleeping lawyer to ask if he still felt that “The Great Gatsby” is the greatest American novel ever. The answer was yes.

Write James R. Hagerty at [email protected]

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