The Federal Home Loan Bank Board filed a civil suit Monday against nine former officials of a failed Suffolk, Va., savings and loan association, sending a signal to savings and loan officials that it is initiating a nationwide crackdown on questionable management practices.
Suing on behalf of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp., the Bank Board accuses former directors and officers of First Savings and Loan Association of Suffolk of gross negligence and violation of federal regulations.
Thomas P. Vartanian, general counsel for the Bank Board and the FSLIC, emphasized that this is not an isolated case in which there are allegations of negligence or misconduct.
Eight similar cases are being prepared by Vartanian's office; dozens of former S&L officials may be asked to account for the failures of their institutions.
By bringing civil suits in federal court, the Bank Board aims to recoup damages stemming from mismanagement that led to the failure of government insured savings institutions.
There may be referrals to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, Vartanian said, and possibly charges of unethical practices by lawyers for S&Ls, which will be referred to bar associations.
Although there is some precedent for the action by the Bank Board, this latest policy decision is an unignorable signal that the agency has begun a crackdown on questionable management practices in the industry it regulates.
"I think the board would very much like to make that clear," Vartanian said in an interview.
The Bank Board is determined to maintain the integrity of deregulation of the industry and to step up enforcement proceedings where there is a hint of abuse, Vartanian added.
In the case of First Savings of Suffolk, an $80 million institution before its collapse last August, the FSLIC is seeking to recover losses and expenses incurred when it paid another savings institution to take over First Savings after it had been declared insolvent by Virginia officials.
FSLIC insures S&L accounts of up to $100,000. In most cases, FSLIC prefers not to pay off depositors directly when an S&L fails; instead, FSLIC arranges a merger with a healthy association and provides some cash to make the deal feasible. It paid about $13.7 million to facilitate a merger last year of First Savings of Suffolk into Citizens Savings and Loan of Richmond.
In its complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, the Bank Board alleges that First Savings and Loan's insolvency was due primarily to losses of about $10 million on a $30 million loan that the S&L made to finance the conversion of an apartment complex to condominiums. The loan represented more than 38 percent of the association's total assets and exceeded the legal lending limit for a single loan, the Bank Board said.
Federal officials contend the loan in question exceeded the value of the property and allege that the deal was closed without required loan documents.
The complaint also alleges other regulatory violations and unsafe and unsound practices in making unsecured loans, excessive investments in the S&L's service corporation and "imprudent procurement of brokered funds at excessive cost to the association."
Former directors of First Savings are accused in the lawsuit of ignoring their fiduciary responsibility to supervise management in the operation of the association.
Although Bank Board officials would not discuss details of other civil suits that are being prepared, the eight cases involve improper lending practices and an "absolute disregard of federal laws," according to Vartanian.
Preliminary investigations show that loans in several instances exceeded legal lending limits and that others were risky at best, given the highly speculative nature of many of the projects that were involved.
There is also evidence suggesting that some former savings and loan officials were "trying to make a quick buck" at the expense of the institution, Vartanian said.
Investigations into failed institutions indicate some former officials might have been the beneficiaries of so-called golden parachutes, which guarantee their salaries even if their institutions are merged out of existence.
Investigators have also turned up information suggesting there were questionable payments to lawyers and consultants in the final days of failing associations.
Indeed, said Vartanian, funds from some failing institutions may have wound up in various accounts of other companies.
Barely recovered from its worst earnings crisis in four decades, the savings and loan industry could face its biggest scandal if the Bank Board succeeds in proving its allegations.