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OLYMPIA, Wash. – It’s been 10 years since the last credit union here obtained a charter and it failed shortly after its launch. So as Thurston Union of Low Income People Cooperative Credit Union prepares to open its doors for business this fall, expectations are high despite its predecessor’s fate. The American Bar Association’s Credit Union Committee is hoping to have a hand in beating those odds by providing pro bono service to TULIP as it reviews all legal preliminary documents needed for the credit union’s upcoming regulator exams. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get off the ground and even more of a challenge to keep a credit union going,” said Laura Lawrence, TULIP’s manager. “We want to do everything right to ensure our success.” TULIP’s relationship with the ABA CU Committee stems from the legal group’s recent nationwide launch of its free or low-cost legal services to newly chartered and low income credit unions, said Brian Witt, the committee’s chairman. Witt will review all TULIP’s documents having to do with member services including loan policies and ATM use. “Credit union attorneys are such a niche group,” Witt said. “We can offer credit unions something no other attorney outside the industry can.” Indeed, credit unions will have access to some industry heavyweights including Mary Dunn, CUNA Associate General Counsel, Witt said. TULIP hopes to have 400 members by late 2004 and will offer checking, savings, certificates of deposits, car loans up to $15,000 and personal loans up to $1,000. Its field of membership is determined by community development credit union low-income guidelines but will be open to those who live in Thurston County, Lawrence said. Olympia Cooperative Credit Union has also agreed to set up a TULIP branch for the first year. Members will also have access to financial counseling and debt management assistance through Balance, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of San Francisco. Lawrence said Balance has agreed to provide the services to members at no cost to TULIP for the first year. Washington State Employees Credit Union put up $250,000 in initial seed money and Boeing Employees Credit Union will provide back-office support for TULIP for the next three years. Lawrence said what makes TULIP different from those credit unions that have failed to thrive was the ongoing legal support needed to stay in front of operational and member relation issues. Robert Rutkowski, an attorney with Weltman Weinberg & Reis, represents more than 300 credit unions in Ohio and saw the ABA partnership as a natural extension of what he already does. “At some point, credit unions need to be self-sufficient but if I can offer my expertise in that first year or so, then, why not?” Rutkowski said. Likewise, Palmer Williams, of Williams Gautier, Gwynn & DeLoach, in Tallahassee, Fla., said his firm has assisted credit unions with assets under $15 million and the difference is consistent. “As corny as it may sound, they say thank you,” Williams said. “It makes a difference when someone says thank you because you start off the relationship trying to build their trust and once the client trusts you, that’s such a wonderful feeling.” Rosemary Hardiman requested clarification of an NCUA definition of depository institution when Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union in Tampa applied for a trust charter through its CUSO. The Virginia-based attorney credits Witt with formalizing an effort that many credit union attorneys were already involved in. “There’s a need for low-income and small asset-sized credit unions,” said Hardiman, who also provides pro bono service. “This effort will evolve as leagues continue to alert us to those credit unions that need help.” New York-based Ken Ackerman has worked with credit unions for more than 20 years and he said the cooperative spirit among them is infectious. “Can you imagine how intimidating it is to start a credit union?” said Ackerman of Mackenzie Hughes, LLP. “Why should I stand on the sidelines and watch them struggle?” -

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