Where'd the bailout money go? Banks aren't saying

Think you could borrow money from a bank without saying what you were going to do with it? Well, banks borrowing from you don't feel the same need to say how the money is spent.

After receiving billions in aid from taxpayers, the USA's largest banks say they can't track exactly how they're spending it. Some won't even talk about it. "We're choosing not to disclose that," said Kevin Heine, spokesman for Bank of New York Mellon bk, which received $3 billion.

Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for JPMorgan Chase jpm, which received $25 billion in bailout money, said that while some of it was lent, some was not, and the bank won't say exactly how the money is being used. "We have not disclosed that to the public. We're declining to," he said.

The Associated Press contacted 21 banks that received at least $1 billion in government money and asked four questions: How much has been spent? What was it spent on? How much is being held in savings? And what's the plan for the rest? None of the banks provided specific answers.

"We're not providing dollar-in, dollar-out tracking," said Barry Koling, a spokesman for SunTrust Banks sti, which got $3.5 billion.

Some said they simply didn't know where it was going. "We manage our capital in its aggregate," said Regions Financial rf spokesman Tim Deighton, who said the bank is not tracking how it is spending the $3.5 billion it received as part of the bailout.

Secrecy and TARP

The answers highlight the secrecy surrounding the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, which earmarked $700 billion to help rescue the financial industry. The Treasury Department has been using the money to buy stock in U.S. banks, hoping that the sudden in-flow of cash will get banks to start lending again.

Lawmakers summoned bank executives to Capitol Hill last month and implored them to lend the money — not to hoard it or spend it on bonuses, junkets or to buy other banks. But there is no process to make sure that's happening and no consequences for banks that don't comply.

"It is entirely appropriate for the American people to know how their taxpayer dollars are being spent in private industry," said Elizabeth Warren, the top congressional watchdog overseeing the financial bailout.

But, at least for now, there's no way for taxpayers to find out. Under pressure to approve the money quickly, Congress attached nearly no strings to the $700 billion bailout in October. Treasury, which doles out the money, never asked how it would be spent. "Those are legitimate questions that should have been asked on Day 1," said Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., a House Financial Services Committee member who opposed the bailout.

Nearly every bank AP questioned — including Citibank c and Bank of America bac, two of the largest recipients of bailout money — responded with generic statements saying that the money was being used to strengthen balance sheets and continue making loans to ease the credit crisis.

A few described company-specific programs, such as JPMorgan Chase's plan to lend $5 billion to non-profit and health care companies. Richard Becker, senior vice president of Marshall & Ilsley mi, said the $1.75 billion in bailout money let the bank temporarily stop home foreclosures.

But no bank provided even a basic accounting for the federal money. Some said it couldn't be tracked. Bob Denham, spokesman for BB&T bbt, said the bailout money "doesn't have its own bucket." But he said taxpayer money wasn't used recently when the bank bought an insurance company. Asked how he could be sure, because the money wasn't being tracked, Denham said the deal would have been done regardless.

Others, such as Morgan Stanley ms spokeswoman Carissa Ramirez, offered to discuss the matter on condition of anonymity. When AP refused, Ramirez sent an e-mail saying, "We are going to decline to comment on your story."

Tighter restrictions?

Most banks wouldn't say why they were keeping the details secret. "We're not sharing any other details. We're just not at this time," said Wendy Walker, spokeswoman for Comerica cma, which received $2.25 billion.

One didn't even want to say they wouldn't say. Heine, the New York Mellon spokesman who said he wouldn't share spending specifics, added, "I just would prefer if you wouldn't say that we're not going to discuss those details."

Those that came closest to answering the questions were those, such as U.S. Bancorp usb and Huntington Bancshares Hban, that only recently received the money and have yet to spend it. But neither provided anything more than a generic summary of how the money would be spent.

Lawmakers say they want to tighten restrictions on the yet-to-be-released $350 billion of bailout money. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has said the department is trying to step up its monitoring of bank spending.

Warren, the congressional watchdog, said her oversight panel will try to force the banks to say where the money is spent. "It would take a lot of nerve not to give answers," she said.

But Warren said she's surprised she even has to ask: "If the appropriate restrictions were put on the money to begin with, if the appropriate transparency was in place, then we wouldn't be in a position where you're trying to call every recipient and get the basic information that should already be in public documents."