By VICTORIA MCGRANE and ALAN ZIBEL
WASHINGTON—A U.S. bank regulator said Monday that its top lawyer will step down next month after nearly two decades of service, a departure that may signal tougher treatment ahead for banks.
Julie Williams, the chief counsel at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, said she will relinquish her position Sept. 30 and retire from the federal government at year-end. She joined the agency in 1993 and was named chief counsel the following year.
Comptroller Thomas Curry, who started his job in April, said in an interview published in July with The Wall Street Journal that he wants to eliminate the perception that financial institutions are treated as clients to be served rather than supervised. “We’re not here as an advocate. We’re here as a supervisor,” he said.
Ms. Williams has long been a part of the OCC’s bank-friendly image in the minds of many congressional Democrats and consumer advocates in Washington.
In the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, Ms. Williams was the leading force in the OCC’s largely successful push to block state consumer-protection laws from applying to the nationally chartered banks it oversees. While Ms. Williams was general counsel, the OCC both supported banks’ lawsuits against states and took its own action defending the policy, known as the federal pre-emption doctrine.
The OCC’s position at the time was that the state laws were blocking loans to legitimate borrowers. Consumer advocates argue that more aggressive efforts at the state and federal level to stamp out abusive lending practices could have lessened the damage from the housing bust.
In a 2004 speech, Ms. Williams said that “clearly, predatory lending is a problem in this country, but national banks and their subsidiaries are not where those practices are festering.”
Ms. Williams was “not an ally,” said John Taylor, chief executive of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a group of community advocates. Such consumer groups have been encouraged by the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created by the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, and by the ascent of new regulators such as Mr. Curry.
Mr. Curry is under pressure to change the image of the OCC, all the more so after the agency came under fire from lawmakers for missing problems that led to a multibillion dollar loss at J.P. Morgan ChaseJPM +0.70% & Co.
On Monday, Mr. Curry told staff in a memo that Ms. Williams’s contributions have been “extraordinary,” citing her litigation record and work to improve bank disclosures for consumers.
“She’s really got a superb legal mind,” said Eugene Ludwig, who hired Ms. Williams when he was comptroller. “She served the federal government with distinction.”
Ms. Williams declined to comment. An OCC spokesman said she is focused “on performing the duties of the position through Sept. 30, after which she will focus on the next opportunity,” with plans to continue to work in the industry.
Deputy Chief Counsel Daniel Stipano will serve as acting chief counsel from Oct. 1 through the end of the year, and Deputy Chief Counsel Karen Solomon will serve from Jan. 1 through March 31, 2013, the agency said.