Treasurer reaches understanding with Washington Trust on inclusivity in lending

Westerly-based community bank agrees to diversify board, commit to additional equity programs after redlining allegations

By: - October 4, 2023 4:15 pm

Scenes from the ‘What we value is you’ marketing campaign launched by The Washington Trust Company in August 2023. The campaign developed by Boston-based Forge Worldwide includes people of several ethnicities and backgrounds across the state. (Screenshots)

PROVIDENCE — The Washington Trust Company has pledged to diversify its board of directors and executives as part of an agreement reached with Rhode Island General Treasurer James Diossa.

The Westerly-based bank also agreed to support the state’s CollegeBound Saver 529 Plan and to form a “diverse and inclusive” community advisory board.

These are among a series of changes outlined in a plan made public Tuesday after Diossa’s office pushed for change at the bank, which holds more than $187 million in state deposits, equal to 3.5% of the bank’s $5.3 billion in deposits, according to its latest quarterly earning statement as of June 30.

The new commitments came nearly a week after Diossa said his office would “re-evaluate” its relationship with the Washington Trust Company in the wake of a $9 million settlement with the federal government over allegations it engaged in a discriminatory lending practice known as redlining against Black and Hispanic communities in Rhode Island. The bank denied the claims, saying it settled to avoid potential litigation.

But details of the broad-brush commitments including the dollars behind them, the deadlines to meet them, or what constitutes “diversity” on appointed or elected boards are murky. 

Treasurer: State relationship with Washington Trust ‘under evaluation’

Diossa’s office declined to answer specific questions, and Washington Trust did not respond to immediate request for comment.

Treasury spokesperson Michelle Moreno-Silva said in a phone call Wednesday that “there’s nothing concrete yet” in terms of when an advisory board will be established or when the bank plans to diversify its executive makeup.

“It is something that is top of mind that we’re continuing to have ongoing conversations about,” she said. “There’s no definite date as of now.”

Moreno-Silva said in an email “diversity and inclusivity are more than a numbers game — this is about establishing a more collaborative decision-making process, focused on actual inclusion rather than just representation.”

Washington Trust also pledged to sponsor community celebrations and festivals important to Black and Hispanic Rhode Islanders. The bank will also expand paid advertisements on media outlets in underserved communities and communities of color. When ads will appear is also unclear. 

“It makes business sense for the bank to advertise in diverse outlets, including Black and Latino outlets across the state,” Moreno-Silva said.

“We emphasized the need for more effective engagement, recommended ways in which the bank could expand their lending and outreach programs into underserved communities, and encouraged a willingness to create new programs.”

In August, Washington Trust launched a separate marketing campaign titled, “What we value is you.” Ads feature people of several ethnicities and backgrounds across the state in a way the company said celebrates “everything that is special about our local communities.”

In addition to new ads and diversifying its boards, the bank committed to the following actions:

  • Share the findings of its analysis of its lending activity in the communities it serves with the general treasurer.
  • Expand use and awareness of the bank’s homeownership programs.
  • Work with the treasurer’s office to expand the bank’s financial literacy program into more urban school districts in Rhode Island.

“This collaboration goes beyond financial support,” Moreno-Silva said.

“It’s intended to be an effort to increase access to higher education for students of color, low-income students, and students in underserved communities.”

Diossa said his office will meet with Washington Trust Chairman and CEO Edward O. Handy III on a quarterly basis to track their progress on all these actions.

“Washington Trust remains committed to ensuring everyone in all Rhode Island communities has equal access to all our financial products and services,” Handy said in a statement. 

He added that the bank looks forward to opening a branch in Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood and that the bank is looking for locations for another branch “in other underserved communities” — something the bank committed to prior to its agreement with the state.

Moreno-Silva said she’s confident the agreement will address the concerns expressed by Diossa’s office and ensure the state continues its relationship with Washington Trust.

“This option will always remain on the table, but Treasurer Diossa is optimistic that the joint actions will serve to properly assist communities of color,” Moreno-Silva said. “Given the agreement of the action plan, we do not foresee pulling deposits in the immediate.”


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.