Mr. Lance, who often called himself a “country banker,” was one of the more colorful members of the so-called “Georgia mafia” that arrived in Washington after Carter was elected in 1976.
He had been part of Carter’s inner circle since the 1960s and had reportedly been the first person to recommend that Carter run for president. He was rewarded with the plum post of director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Standing 6-foot-5, the jowly, jovial Mr. Lance made an immediate impression on buttoned-up Washington with his easy affability. He disarmed reporters and lawmakers with his front-porch friendliness and was credited with popularizing the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But some senators and Washington insiders considered Mr. Lance over his head at the OMB. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, opposed Mr. Lance’s nomination, saying, “He has had none — zero, zip, zilch, not one year, not one week, not one day” of experience at managing a federal budget then estimated at $400 billion.
Nonetheless, Mr. Lance was easily approved for the job. He was considered one of Carter’s closest advisers and was even dubbed the “assistant president” by Forbes magazine.
Within months, though, concerns about his personal finances arose. Federal investigators questioned whether Mr. Lance had been forthcoming when his nomination was being considered. Among other things, his bank had issued loans of almost $5 million to Carter’s family peanut business.
Mr. Lance was called a “country slicker” in the press and was suspected of shuffling money around like a blackjack dealer. He had a net worth of almost $3 million — but had more than $5 million in debt. He owned three large houses in Georgia and rented a house in Georgetown. Annual interest payments on his various loans amounted to $370,000; his salary as budget director was $57,500.
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee grilled Mr. Lance over allegations that he had misused bank funds, obtained loans at favorable rates and used a company plane to fly to University of Georgia football games. While he was testifying in Washington, people back in his home town of Calhoun rallied to Mr. Lance’s side, waving signs that read “Don’t Treat Bert Like Dirt.”
Several senators called for his resignation, and under increasing pressure, Mr. Lance resigned in September 1977, less than nine months after taking the top job at the OMB. It was the first major internal scandal of the Carter presidency.
Mr. Lance went back to Georgia, where he was arraigned on federal charges that could have sent him to prison for 95 years for conspiracy, fraud and assorted violations of banking laws.