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Originally published Saturday, July 17, 2010 at 10:05 PM

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Danny Westneat

Big banks, meet the little guy

Stephan Mollmann thought he was just letting off steam. Instead he heated up a movement. For 10 years, Mollmann, 39, has owned a bar in...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Stephan Mollmann thought he was just letting off steam. Instead he heated up a movement.

For 10 years, Mollmann, 39, has owned a bar in Seattle's Central Area. In frustration last week he decided to use it to nip at the heels of a banking colossus.

"July is freedom month in America," he announced, "so free yourself from Chase!"

At his Cherry Street bar, The Twilight Exit, Mollmann started a sort of reverse toaster-giveaway: He'll buy anyone a free dinner who quits JPMorgan Chase Bank. Show him proof you canceled your account at the bank, and the steak, fried chicken or bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin is on him.

"I want to put the hurt on them," Mollmann said, grinning, when I dropped by the bar.

I know the feeling. I was a longtime Washington Mutual customer (back when it was a "friend of the family"). When Chase took over, inertia, or maybe it was laziness, kept me hanging around.

Bad move. In the spring, Chase, for no good reason, plunged my family into a financial crisis.

Without notice, Chase froze a line of credit my wife was using to run her small housing-development business. She had a project in mid-construction. One day she had money to pay the construction crew. The next day it was gone.

She had to halt construction, lay off workers and spend two months and thousands of dollars appealing to a disinterested corporate Borg. (The loan eventually was reinstated when it was made clear that Chase, by its own contract, had no grounds to freeze it.)

Mollmann's a safe bet as a customer. He's got near-perfect credit, enough income to make his payments (he's never missed one) as well as equity in his home. All he's trying to do is refinance his home loan with Chase, because he has one of those boom-era mortgages with a high 7.75 percent interest rate.

But Chase has put him through six months of paperwork torture and delay. Some of it is inscrutable, such as when the bank insisted he couldn't refinance unless he showed his house was up for sale. He doesn't want to sell. Plus the rule is usually the opposite — that you can't refinance if your home is on the market.

Other parts have been surreal. Mollmann says he was told he would likely qualify if he was behind on his loan payments — part of a special program to ward off foreclosure. Incredulous, he asked a banker: You're saying I have to start missing payments to get you to give me a loan?

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"I think they just want to keep me in that high-interest loan forever," he says.

Mollmann may be able to get a loan elsewhere, which he's going to try. But in a fit of pique he thought he'd see if a big bank can feel pain.

It won't even notice, I suggested. They're not just too big to fail. They're too big to care.

But it's also true there's a grass-roots movement afoot to get out of the monster banks and into, say, credit unions.

Mollmann was the poster boy last week at "Move Your Money," a nonprofit that encourages both individuals and institutions to divest as a way to pierce the big-bank bubble (moveyourmoney.info).

"The way I look at it, if you want to change something like the war in Iraq, there's not a lot you can do," Mollmann says. "With the banks you do have power. If people pulled their money out en masse and went local with it, that would at least get their attention."

I say we try it. Face it: Congress isn't going to favor Main Street over Wall Street. Everyone still talks about how dangerous it was that banks were too big to fail. But the lasting paradox of the great financial collapse is that it has made the big banks only one thing: bigger.

Making them smaller — I guess that's up to you, me and the regulars down at the bar.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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