Critics Say Allbritton Ruined Bank He Loved
By David Montgomery and Kathleen Day
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 17, 2004; Page A01
Joe L. Allbritton loved Riggs Bank to death.
The strong-willed Texan bought control of the beloved and storied Washington institution in 1981 at its peak of influence and prestige. The "bank of presidents" served 21 first families over the years, financed the purchase of Alaska and became the largest bank in the region.
Yesterday, Washington awoke to learn that after more than 160 years, the Riggs name will disappear, swallowed by PNC Financial Services Group Inc. Allbritton once dismissed such faceless financial conglomerates as "toothpaste banks" -- Crestar, Sovran -- and vowed never to sell out to one. But by yesterday he had no choice. His Riggs was no longer the largest or most important bank in the Washington area, and it was enveloped in a thickening cloud of scandal over failing to guard against money laundering and catering to dictators along with presidents.
Over the years, Allbritton's passionate devotion to "the Riggs" never flagged, nor did his strong personal intervention in the bank's direction or his cultivation of rarefied segments of the market -- embassies, trusts, private banking for the richest of the rich.
In the few interviews he gave, he spoke of his pride in his pedigreed, independent bank.
"I must confess that I will miss the Riggs name," Allbritton said yesterday in a written response to some written questions. "It has been a big part of my life for more than 20 years, and a big part of Washington for more than 165 years."
Owning the bank gave him access to the interlocking social and political circles of elite Washington. He lived large in this world -- entertaining with his wife, Barbara, at their Foxhall Road NW home (an often-featured dish: Texas chili), breaking bread with favored clients in the Riggs dining room looking over the White House, buying French Impressionist paintings for the bank and for himself, raising a winner of the Preakness on his Virginia horse farm and giving millions away to the arts, education and churches. He befriended presidents but was strictly bipartisan: His oldest friends belonged to the Lyndon Johnson crowd, yet he donated the official White House portrait of Ronald Reagan.
At the same time, at Allbritton's urging, top Riggs executives were courting more unsavory celebrities, including former Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet and Teodoro Obiang Nguema, dictator of Equatorial Guinea. Recollections of Riggs executives differ over whether Allbritton joined a Riggs delegation to meet Pinochet in Chile, though he took a personal interest in Pinochet's multimillion-dollar Riggs account, according to investigators. Top Riggs executives entertained Obiang at the bank and wrote him a polite letter thanking him "for the opportunity you granted to us in hosting a luncheon in your honor here at Riggs Bank."
Allbritton did not respond to a question about his role in the Pinochet account.
Despite his hobnobbing, Allbritton, 79, never sought fame and maintained a low profile. His public identity was the bank: Riggs was Allbritton and Allbritton was Riggs. Three years ago, he turned over the top job to his son, Robert L. Allbritton, now 35. Joe Allbritton stayed on the bank holding company's board until May, when his wife also stepped down from the bank's board. Joe Allbritton controls most of the family's 41 percent of the shares.
In hindsight, according to regulators, analysts and fellow bankers, many of the choices he made for the bank were ill-advised. What he thought was good for Riggs turned out to be bad. And his strong personal style and huge stake may have screened out dissent among managers and directors that could have written a different ending to the story of Riggs.
"He was inattentive to the local bank and seemed to place all of his eggs in other baskets, and he chose those baskets poorly," said Gary B. Townsend, senior vice president with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group in Arlington.
Despite protests from shareholders over the expense, Allbritton insisted on maintaining the bank's Gulfstream jet. He would fly around the world, promoting Riggs to potential customers and returning to regale directors at board meetings with his encounters with world leaders.
The Gulfstream was an emblem of the high overhead that was part of the Allbritton style. Yet the international and embassy business used to justify the jet were never exceptionally profitable, even after Riggs had acquired 95 percent of the embassy accounts in Washington. By industry measures, the bank's returns for investors were mediocre.
"I always heard what a great, smart guy this was, but the historical data on the bank was embarrassing, the track record," said Henry Coffey, vice president and senior equity analyst at Ferris, Baker Watts Inc. in Baltimore.
In 24 years under Allbritton, such critics said, a franchise with remarkable potential withered.
"The Riggs group blew it," said Robert Pincus, former chief executive officer of D.C. National Bank and a longtime area banker. "It was such a wonderful franchise, and they seemed to manage it well for a number of years, but it appears management stopped paying attention. They kind of lost control -- first for the shareholders, but the community and the employees are also losers."
Now the most enduring memory of Riggs in Washington may be the words "Riggs National Bank" carved in the marble facade of the historic flagship branch on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, facing the Treasury Department -- where regulators have turned up much of the embarrassing evidence that is tarnishing that name.
The bank is under investigation by federal examiners and law enforcement officials, as well as by at least three congressional committees, for years-long violations of anti-money-laundering rules. Of particular interest is the embassy division, especially transactions in hundreds of accounts associated with Saudi Arabia, Equatorial Guinea and Pinochet.
Two top bank regulators -- the Federal Reserve Board and the Treasury Department's Office of the Comptroller of the Currency -- recently began a targeted review of Joe Allbritton's activities at the bank and its holding company, Riggs National Corp., to see if he violated any laws and whether any civil fines or criminal referrals to the Department of Justice should be made, government sources familiar with the investigation said.
At issue is whether Allbritton was an active participant in the daily operations of the bank even though he has not been a director or executive of the bank for three years, the sources said. If regulators determine he was an active participant, then he could face fines or other sanctions, government sources said.
Allbritton said yesterday he has not been named a target of a criminal probe.
As regulators were pursuing their findings, on a couple of occasions Allbritton or his wife seemed to resist the intervention into the bank.
In October 2002, when federal bank examiners presented their findings on the Pinochet accounts to the Riggs board, Barbara Allbritton "complained that the agency had effectively forced the bank to close the Pinochet account," according to a Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee report.
In December 2003, according to the same report, when examiners met with the Riggs board to discuss the Equatorial Guinea accounts, Joe Allbritton said "the bank had no intention of closing the Equatorial Guinea accounts."
Robert Allbritton later told the Senate staff that his father's statement "did not reflect the views of all board members."
Regulatory matters aside, analysts say one of Allbritton's biggest mistakes in running Riggs occurred in the mid-1980s, shortly after he took control. That was when interstate banking became legal. Many banks began opening branches in several states and combining with other banks. Riggs ventured only half-heartedly out of its home base in the District, leaving large swaths of the booming suburbs to competitors.
"Joe Allbritton, with some of the decisions he made in the '80s, essentially foreclosed Riggs's ability to be a competitive institution," said Rockville-based bank consultant Arnold G. Danielson.
But Allbritton said his decisions were sound for their times. In an interview this spring, he said, "I did not find it attractive to try to be the biggest bank in several states."
His pursuit of the embassy business -- which year after year Riggs bragged about in its annual reports -- also made sense, he said.
Now that the embassy business is the source of the bank's regulatory woes, he said yesterday, "We all have good hindsight, and everyone associated with the bank has acknowledged that errors were made."
The embassy business was a natural for a Washington bank, he said: "There is no better city for this than the seat of government and the city of embassies. If I were looking from the vantage point of the 1980s and 90s, I'd do the same thing today. But a lot changed on 9/11, and what made sense when the bank was acquired does not make as much sense today."
The new owners of Riggs do not seem terribly impressed with it. During a conference call with reporters yesterday, PNC Chief Financial Officer William S. Demchak said, "If you go back in history, Riggs has not been a particularly good earning bank." He noted that the bank's overhead is high and that Riggs under Allbritton had emphasized international and embassy business "which were break-even or less" and high-risk.
Allbritton did not respond to a question about that assessment.
Around Washington yesterday, the looming loss of Riggs -- another homegrown trademark going the way of Garfinckel's, Woodies, Hechinger, Peoples Drug, the Washington Star -- was being felt.
"It's a sad day for our family," said Robert V. Fleming II, grandson of another legendary Riggs chairman, Robert Fleming, for whom the headquarters high-rise is named. "We understand how and why this came about. We're sorry. We're going to miss the Riggs name."
Staff writers Terence O'Hara and Martha McNeil Hamilton contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company