The banking industry’s longstanding effort to deter or prevent credit unions from using the words “bank” and “banking” in advertising was advanced to a new plateau last week with a proposed cease and desist order placed by the state’s top regulator on the $600 million Vermont State Employees Credit Union.

With the help of CUNA and the Association of Vermont Credit Unions, the Montpelier credit union was fighting back in both the public and private arena to reverse an intent order prior to a hearing in late August scheduled by Steve Kimbell, the Vermont commissioner and head of the Department of Financial Regulation that supervises, credit unions, banks and insurance firms.

Supported by the industry in Vermont and nationwide, Steven Post, president/CEO of Vermont State Employees called bankers’ latest foray into clamping down on the bank language “ludicrous and amazing.” He vowed to turn back any cease and desist order if the state follows through next month.

For his part, Kimbell, a Montpelier attorney and former lobbyist, maintained the Vermont State Employees and other credit unions have a legitimate defense in continuing the common practice of mentioning bank and banking in their TV ads, online and in general marketing materials.

“Credit unions have some very persuasive arguments on their side as to constitutional free speech,” said Kimbell as he outlined legal underpinnings for his June 18 cease and desist notice.

Kimbell, who has won active support of the Vermont Bankers Association, told Credit Union Times he chose an administrative procedure based on a strict interpretation of Vermont’s 1969 law dealing with use of bank language by financial institutions other than banks in advertising.

Kimbell, who acknowledged he has quickly become the target of harsh rhetoric from angry Vermont credit union leaders over the proposed order, said constitutional free speech is very much in play.

Still, Kimbell said he has undertaken “a procedural action” against the state’s second largest credit union based on concerns and complaints regarding Vermont State Employees advertising, which most recently was highlighted by a “redefining banking” marketing campaign.

“It is not my job to make the law. That is a job for the legislature,” stressed Kimbell, arguing his proposed cease and desist order may include what he called some “tortured reasoning.”

The leadership of the Vermont Bankers Association, meanwhile, has maintained that that while many Vermont credit unions use bank and banking plus other bank-related terms in ads, “VSECU is the most flagrant and abuses the practice,” said a spokeswoman.

It remained uncertain how far the state, the Vermont Bankers Association or CUNA might pursue the order’s legality in court, but Eric Richard, general counsel of CUNA, said in a statement that the trade group fully supports VSECU. “The state regulator is taking an extraordinarily narrow view in its interpretation of state law on this matter, and its conclusion is impractical, illogical and detrimental,” he said. “We believe the credit union’s appeal for further review should be granted. A reassessment is clearly in order.”

Speaking last week during a Burlington TV newscast that also featured Chris D’Elia, the CEO of the Vermont Bankers Association, Post said again the use of the word bank “is common language, commonly understood and everybody knows what it means.” 

But D’Elia complained that credit unions, based on Vermont law, “are not allowed to use banking terminology and shouldn’t be using it. It’s plain and simple.” 

Post argued that the term banking is so common “that if you were to go up to the average member and ask, what type of services do you receive here? They would answer banking.”

In explaining the VSECU position on its website, Post has pointed to federal law, which does not bar federally chartered credit unions from using bank in ads and cited several that have current campaigns with bank in them.

“Federal credit unions in the state are not subject to any Vermont ruling that comes from this enforcement action and therefore can continue using the words banks and banking without penalty,” the credit union said.

If a cease and desist order is slapped on VSECU, Post said he would consider the option of switching to a federal charter.