A new season of stockholder meetings has begun in Washington but a principal actor in the annual dramas is missing
Notable by his absence is professional stockholder and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Lawrence I. Peak, who has been matching wits with top managements here for two decades, often to the delight of small investors in the audience.
Peak suffered a stroke last October and is confined to his home in Northwest Washington.
But this champion of stockholders' rights is not altogether inactive, despite his inability to take in annual meetings (sometimes more than one a day before his illness) or to travel to his exurban home in California, Md.
Culminating an eight-year battle with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge & Tunnel Commission, Peak has filed a court suit here alleging a misapplication of funds to the detriment of bondholders who initially invested in the combined tunnel-bridge connection across the day from Cape Charles to the Norfolk area.
More than $25 million of overdue interest oayments are owed mostly to small investors who purchased $100 million of Bridge & Tunnel Series C 5 3/4 percent bonds in 1960.
Because traffic over the bridgetunnel link between Delmarva and the Virginia Tidewater has not developed as rapidly as pro jected, the commision defaulted on these bonds in 1970. Since then, interest payments have not been distributed when due although some back payments have been made.
Much to the dismay of bond investor Peak, the Virginia National Bank of Norfolk, trustee for the bondholders, has declined to take legal action to recover the back interest payments. Peak has said the bank's reluctance to act amounts to participation in a "$100 million ripoff."
All along, the commission has maintained currect interest payments on two other series of bonds with priority claims -- an "A" series for $70 million and a "B" series for $30 million, mostly held by large institutions.
Peak's suit, filed in state circuit court in Alexandria, alleges that Virginia National Bank and its holding company, Virginia National National Bankshares Inc., Have failed to live up to their responsibility to the bondholders.
He said about $1.9 million was used to retire senior bonds -- money that could have been paid as interest on defaulted coupons of the smaller investors. Peak also claimed that the abank itself benefited from "substantial amounts of money" deposited by the Bridge & Tunnel Commission on an interest-free basis.
Although not mentioned in the suit, for which Peak is seeking a class action status, Bridge & Tunnel Commission Chairman Lucius J. Kellam also sits on the bank's board of directors -- a position to which he was elected after VNB became trustee for the bonds.
"Bully for you -- someone should have initiated this action a long time ago," said one in vestor of the Series C bonds in a letter to Peak, when he began his fight a couple of years ago. Initially, the bank sought to block Peak's efforts to notify bondholders of the possibility they could request legal action.
At the time, Peak pointed to the example of a West Virginia Toll Road default, when Morgan Guaranty Trust Co., as trustee, did launch court action in an effort to secure back interest payments. But Peak failed to get 10 percent of the bondholders to seek action by VNB -- a figure that would have forced the bank to act.
Page Cranford, chief counsel for VNB, said lawyers still are studying the new complaint. "On first reading it appears to cover matters about which we've had discussion with Mr. Peak over serveral years . . . it's always been our position that we acted in accordance with the trust indenture."
Cranford said the bank finds "no conflict" in Kellam's role. The counsel also said he did not have "financial information" that would determine if there are interest-free accounts of the commission at VNB.
The day and bridge link never carried the traffic projected. In its first decade, some 12,6 million vehicles paid tolls compared with projections of 25 million. Still, except for abnormal periods (such as the Arab oil embargo, which led to a decline early in 1974), traffic has been growing gradually. In the 12 months ended Feb. 28, more than 1.77 million vehicles used the route, according to agency controller Donald P. Will.
Revenues of $13.1 million last year should be increased some $1.7 million in 1978 after toll boosts that took effect Jan. 1. But planners had forecast revenues of more than $19 million by 1974.
ON THE CIRCUIT -- If Col. Peak can't probe the depths of corporate accounting or criticize management salaries at this spring's annual meetings, gadfly Evelyn Y. Davis is as active as ever.
Although local eompany meetings are lacking the acid exchanges between the two that made some of the sessions more lively, Davis has found other foils.
At the Washington Gas Light Co. meeting this week, for example, Davis eyed new President Donald Heim and told her fellow stockholders that he looked much like her first ex-husband. Heim buried his head in his hands as his company colleagues roared with laughter.
It would be easy to dismiss the antics of Davis but Washington Gas took a number of actions in the past year to respond to complaints of stockholders. Some of the steps had been advocated by Davis, including detailed listings of corporate and charitable directorships for WGL board members in the proxy statement.
In votes on two resolutions offered by Davis at the meeting, she gathered modest support from other stockholders of about the proportion as the previous year.