DENVER, SEPT. 27 -- Neil Bush acknowledged today that he might have benefited financially from decisions by Silverado Banking, Savings and Loan to approve a $900,000 line of credit to business partner Kenneth M. Good and to release $28 million in collateral for Good's loans.
But Bush, testy and vehement at an administrative hearing into his actions as a Silverado director, insisted that he complied with conflict of interest standards by abstaining from votes on all transactions involving Good.
Bush's answers on some questions frustrated administrative law judge Daniel Davidson, who told Bush at one point, "Excuse me. I think I told you before... . You have to answer questions directly."
The three-day hearing has drawn widespread attention not only because of the involvement of the son of President Bush but also because the collapse of Silverado, one of the most expensive savings and loan cleanups, is expected to cost taxpayers about $1 billion.
In 3 hours of questioning, the federal Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) attempted to show that Bush stood to gain from Silverado's transactions with Good and should have disclosed more information about his ties to the developer. The OTS is seeking a cease and desist order that would bar Bush from engaging in conflicts of interest should he again serve as a director of a financial institution.
The hearing, ending with Bush's testimony, highlighted the vagueness of conflicts of interest rules in federal banking regulations. With just three short paragraphs in the regulations to refer to, witnesses for Bush and the OTS have been able to claim with equal intensity that Bush did or did not violate conflict of interest standards. A decision on the case is expected in January.
The case hinges partly on whether the judge applies the broad concept of conflicts of interest contained in federal banking regulations or a more narrow definition set forth by the state of Colorado.
Banking regulations state only that directors are required to avoid situations that could lead to a conflict or an "appearance of conflict." The rules do not define what constitutes a conflict or specify what activities are prohibited, except to limit loans and real estate sales or purchases made directly with an officer or director.
"There is no itemized list," testified Terry Sandefur, a supervisor of bank examiners for the region, including Colorado. Sandefur testified Wednesday.
The OTS expert witnesses and regulators have testified that it should have been obvious to Bush that his dependence on investments by Good and Bill L. Walters required him to abstain from votes on loans to Walters and to disclose more information when Silverado conducted business with Good.
The OTS lawyers also have pointed to Silverado's internal conflict of interest policy, which states: "It is not the intention of Silverado to require the officer or director to exercise independent judgment as to whether or not a specific act, interest or relationship constitutes a conflict of interest. ... Doubts should be resolved in favor of disclosure."
Given the vagueness of federal regulations, Bush's attorney, James E. Nesland, contends that Bush's conduct should be measured against the state code. Legal experts testifying for the defense have said that according to the state code, Bush's actions did not constitute a conflict because Bush was not a director or officer of the companies controlled by Walters or Good that borrowed from Silverado and because Bush had no financial interest in their transactions with Silverado.
Bush insisted repeatedly that he "complied in every way" with conflict of interest rules and handled his duties as a director "ably and well."
He contended that he voted on loans to Walters, who like Good invested in Bush's oil and gas firm, because he stood to gain "no financial benefit, no benefit period, from any transaction that came before the board that related to Bill Walters. So there was no conflict and no need for disclosure."
In the case of Good, Bush reluctantly acknowledged that he might have eventually benefited from a $900,000 Silverado line of credit approved for Good if the Argentine government had accepted the bid for Argentine oil and gas projects. Bush requested the line of credit for Good, then his partner, in a joint venture seeking business in Argentina.
Bush said he handled the transaction properly by disclosing to Silverado that he was in business with Good and by abstaining from the board's vote. He disputed testimony by Russell Murray, Silverado's former chief lending officer, who said Tuesday that he would have sought legal advice before recommending approval of the line of credit if he had known more about Bush's involvement with Good.
Murray said he did not delve into the request deeply because Bush was a board member and he thought the board would inquire about the matter. But Bush said he disclosed all the important details to Murray.
Bush also agreed that Silverado's decision to accept partial payment of Good's loans might have freed up money for Good to invest in Bush's company, JNB Exploration Co. At the time of the loan restructuring, Good had pledged to invest $5 million, later reduced to $3 million, in Bush's firm -- a commitment that Bush describes as nonbinding.
Bush said yesterday he did not disclose Good's pledge to the board but would have if he thought the developer "was going to be good for" the money. Asked if he and Silverado were competing for Good's funds, Bush replied: "Absolutely not."
Both the defense and the government appeared to find support in testimony early today by Florian Barth, who served with Bush on Silverado's board. Barth testified that it "wouldn't have made that much difference" if Bush had abstained when the board voted to approve Walters's loans, although he said "there might have been more discussion taking place if we had known certain things."
But Barth said "knowing more about the facts might have made a difference" when Bush asked Silverado to grant a $900,000 line of credit to Good. Barth said he knew Bush had business ties to Good, but did not know Bush had requested the line of credit so Good could bid with him in a partnership on oil and gas projects.
Bush, who resigned from the now-failed Silverado in August 1988, is the first savings and loan director in seven years who has pushed federal regulators into a hearing on a cease and desist order. In the past year, nine officers or directors of banks and thrifts have consented to cease and desist orders, according to the OTS. Sixty-four directors have consented to orders banning them from the banking business, including some of Silverado's former top officers.