London's Savoy Court Apartments are counted among Britain's most exclusive private residences. And No. 6 was among the most lavishly appointed.
The 2,500-square-foot, two-story apartment was fully furnished, chock-full of original artwork and antiques that reflected the rich tastes of the well-to-do American family whose horse-breeding, banking and broadcasting interests allowed them to travel in the most rarefied of international cultural and financial circles. The adjacent Savoy Hotel, a Strand landmark just a half-mile from Buckingham Palace, took care of maid service, room service and standing orders for flowers, according to sources familiar with the apartment.
Joe L. Allbritton, the longtime chairman of Riggs Bank, and his wife, Barbara, enjoyed the apartment for more than a decade when personal or business matters brought them to the British capital where Riggs housed its European operations.
Only the Allbrittons didn't own No. 6 Savoy Court. Riggs Bank did -- until the fallout from revelations of widespread violations of federal anti-money-laundering laws led the bank to close its London operations and sell the luxury apartment and a private aircraft also used by the Allbrittons for non-bank business.
Now the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has asked Riggs for documents related to the apartment and the aircraft and the purposes for which they were used, according to sources familiar with the matter who asked to remain anonymous because the bank remains the subject of intense regulatory and law-enforcement scrutiny.
Riggs made disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission for years of the costs of flying the Allbrittons on personal trips, but it made limited disclosures about the company apartment in London with no discussion of who used it or for what purposes. According to two sources, no Riggs executives other than the Allbrittons stayed at the London residence, although it was used for bank functions such as board meetings.
Allbritton family spokesman Paul Clark declined to answer specific questions about the family use of company assets. "At all times, use of the corporate aircraft was consistent with bank policy and accounted for correctly," Clark said in a statement he attributed to Robert L. Allbritton, Joe's son and chairman and chief executive of Riggs National Corp., the bank's holding company. Riggs spokesman Mark N. Hendrix said, "Riggs Bank has declined to respond to these inquiries."
The Allbrittons collectively control nearly 40 percent of the bank's stock; the rest is in the hands of public shareholders. Joe Allbritton was chairman and chief executive of the company until 2001 and sat on the holding company board until this year. Barbara Allbritton was a longtime director of the bank subsidiary.
Riggs sold the London residence for an undisclosed price this summer, booking a $2.5 million gain on the transaction, it said in recent securities filings.
Also sold this summer: the Gulfstream V jet, one of the priciest and most luxurious corporate aircraft available, of which, according to company records, Joe Allbritton made personal use in 2002 and 2003. He was no longer an executive of the bank but remained a director. The company booked a loss of $7.1 million on the sale of the aircraft.
Riggs bought the Gulfstream in 1999 for $39.2 million and recently sold it to a third party for $28.5 million, according to SEC filings. The company's previous plane, a smaller Gulfstream III, was sold to an Allbritton-controlled company for $10.4 million.
Riggs's board approved only general policies for use of the apartment and jet, according to the sources.
The OCC has declined to comment on any pending regulatory matters concerning Riggs. The agency has broad authority over how banks use their assets. It can, at its discretion, rule that large expenditures with no clear business purpose are improper based on the premise that such expenditures are contrary to safety and soundness principles, even if a bank is well-capitalized and healthy.
For a bank its size, Riggs spent lavishly on corporate jets and other overhead, said Gary Townsend, a bank analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. who has followed Riggs since 1999.
"It's not unusual to have a corporate plane," Townsend said. "It is unusual to have a corporate plane, a G-V, for a micro-cap bank with the profitability challenges that this company consistently experienced. The plane cost shareholders a nickel (per share) a year or more."
Riggs's international operations, centered in London, have been unprofitable for a decade, he said. Townsend said that the stated reason for having the plane, to support Riggs's international operations, didn't make economic sense given the lack of profitability.
All told, the Allbrittons had access to three aircraft: Riggs's Gulfstream V, a Beechcraft King Air 300 owned by Allbritton's television broadcasting company, and the Gulfstream III previously owned by Riggs and now owned by another Allbritton entity, Perpetual Corp./Lazy Lane Farms Inc. Riggs, in securities filings, said that it also paid for a relatively small amount of use of the Beechcraft and the Gulfstream III for Riggs company business, even though it already owned the Gulfstream V.
And though Joe Allbritton had access to two other aircraft owned by entities he controlled, he still used Riggs aircraft for personal business, at the bank's expense. According to SEC filings, Riggs paid for Joe Allbritton's personal use of the Gulfstream jet in 2003 and 2002, booking $334,552 and $251,187 in costs, respectively.
Sources familiar with the use of the aircraft in 2002 and 2003 said that Joe Allbritton used Riggs's jet to fly to his homes in Houston and California and to London.
Robert Allbritton also used the Riggs jet for personal business. Riggs said it funded costs of $62,973 in 2003 and $71,424 in 2002 for Robert to use the aircraft. Sources familiar with the use of the aircraft said that among his uses for the jet was flying his wedding party to the Caribbean for a prenuptial party in 2003. Robert also used the plane for his honeymoon, the sources said.