Marvin L. Warner has just arrived home after another day marked by government questioning and investigations; by rumors and squabbles and ugly press stories; by his living in a nearly three-month, self-imposed exile here. Another day, he says, of desperately trying to defend his name, his fortune, and his future against the charge that he caused Ohio's biggest banking crisis since the Great Depression, which many believe ignited the recent panic in Maryland.
"Reputation?" says the former owner of the Cincinnati-based Home State Savings Bank in his heavy Alabama drawl. "I don't have a reputation right now . . . I lost my reputation, my credibility. I lost my lines of credit. And I lost a hunk of money -- I'd say $30 million."
He sips a vodka and water and stares out at the bay, the remnants of dusk's light bathing the room, and the friendly chatter of his wife and sister echoing in the background. "Hey, you all," he calls out, "Quiet!"
"My entire life has changed; there's been tremendous pressures, psychological, financial," Warner says. "The stress and strains of being accused of things you've never been accused of before. You work 65 years to establish a position and then suddenly, you find all of that challenged, all of that being chipped away, and finally your reputation and credibility -- you find it destroyed in one fell swoop, in a matter of hours, not weeks, not months, not days."
In his salad days he was the kind of person who lived a life of no surprises except for those he created. The boom of the postwar real estate economy brought him millions from building in Birmingham, Ala., and then in Ohio, where his wealth led him into the corridors of influence, and his bank account helped him attain political leverage with people like Jimmy Carter and John Glenn. From Miami to Bern, Switzerland, to Cincinnati to Washington, stories abounded about his penchant for big deals and big spending.
Today he is spurned by the people who once clamored for his political and financial support, accused of salvaging his personal wealth at the expense of Ohio's savings and loan industry, and awaiting the outcome of investigations into his actions.
"I feel like Custer, being shot at from all sides," he says. "Maybe it's because I'm flamboyant, maybe it's because I'm a Democrat, maybe it's because I was a bachelor for a long time, maybe it's because I'm Jewish . . . I have no idea."
Warner owned Home State, closed down nearly two months ago for a lack of funds to pay its depositors. The panic started in early March when it was discovered that the bank had more than $140 million of its customers' money invested in an obscure Florida-based company that went belly-up amid allegations of fraudulent activities. More than 90,000 Home State depositors were left with no way to retrieve their savings.
It triggered one of the biggest national financial scares in 50 years. Investor panic prompted the dollar to fall and gold to rise, caused thousands to line up outside Ohio banks demanding and denied their money and created a crisis of confidence in the thrift industry, a crisis now playing itself out in Maryland. Marvin Warner came to be seen as a classic villain.
"He's a caricature of himself," says Jerry Austin, Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste's 1982 campaign manager, who at one time was registered as a lobbyist for Home State. "One look at the guy and he comes right out of Central Casting playing the multimillionaire southern rogue with a private jet and a loud presence."
Said Warner last week: "I'm a hard-working, honest man. I was the biggest victim. I was duped. I feel stupid, I feel embarrassed . . . All this flamboyance talk is a figment of someone's imagination. I don't have a Rolls-Royce, or wear a diamond ring. People see the word profitable and think there's something suspicious about it. I don't even have labeled suits and shirts."
In reality there appears to be a little of both in Warner, a rough side to the silky appearances of his life. He is still handsome at 65, with tight, bronzed skin, shiny blondish hair, a trim waistline and a 28-year-old third wife of less than a year, who, he says, "keeps me young."
"I'll tell you," he says like a man who knows his life will never be the same again, "the real test of my character is yet ahead."The Rise
The Ohio media have dubbed him the J.R. Ewing of Ohio. But unlike J.R.'s, Warner's is a story of a self-made man whom admirers see as patriotic and generous and detractors dismiss as the prince of hype, always ready with a gimmick to turn a dollar.
Warner has made his way from streetwise son of a Birmingham baker to an estimated net worth of $100 million, a paragon of the American dream. He achieved position, but some say without style. As U.S. ambassador to Bern, Switzerland, Warner once staged a car show on the lawn of the elegant embassy there. Some Swiss were less than impressed.
Once he gave away turkeys to Home State customers in an attempt to boost deposits. The bank pulled in $5 million that week.
His first wife was Jane Blach, the daughter of a prominent Birmingham family that owned Blach's department store; his second wife, of one year, was Susan Goldwater, the ex-wife of Barry Goldwater Jr. In 1977, between marriages, he also had a well-publicized friendship with Susan Clough, then Jimmy Carter's personal secretary. He calls women "darling."
These days his attention is focused on his wife, Jody Piehowicz, a slim Jaclyn Smith look-alike with dark, wavy hair, stylish clothes and a guileless demeanor. She left her job as counsel to Ohio House Speaker Vernal Riffe (D) when they were married last September.
"You ask me about Jody," says Warner. "Well, without her I don't know what my reactions would have been, but together we have been able to handle this thing . . . She's been a rock."
"It's made us closer," she says, having noted earlier that, "I really hate to discuss my age with reporters. It's amazing that, because he has a young wife, it fuels his whole flamboyant image. Marvin and my relationship is ageless, because Marvin is ageless."
Warner has three adult children, and four grandchildren. Asked if the couple plans on having children of their own, she responds: "I never wanted children. My mother worked when I was growing up and I had to take care of the house and my younger brother and sister. That was enough. It's nice to have ready-made grandchildren.".
"And," he adds, squeezing her hand before the arrival of the shrimp linguine, "Jody has to take care of me."
Warner was born in Birmingham, "on the other side of the tracks," according to a family friend. "He was really a very poor boy," said the friend. "I remember that there was a terrible problem when Jane Blach wanted to marry him. The Blach family just did not think he was right for their daughter."
Warner's mother and father worked in a well-known Jewish bakery/deli in Birmingham called the Bohemian Bakery. Later the Warners bought their own bakery. It was Warner's mother, friends say, who put a high premium on education and success.
"The only blessing in this whole thing is that Mama was not alive to see me go through this," Warner says. "It would have just killed her."
In high school Warner found his vehicle for success when he won a statewide oratory contest. It ensured him a scholarship to the University of Alabama and prompted him to study law.
But when Warner was discharged from the Army in 1946 after serving in the reserves overseas during World War II, other pursuits seemed more important. He has often told the story of how he was offered $150 a month to practice law at one of Birmingham's finer firms, but rejected the offer to work instead for his uncle selling insurance and real estate for $250 a month. "I didn't decide not to go into the law," he says, "finances decided for me. By then I had a wife and child to support."
By taking advantage of the paucity of postwar housing and generous federal building subsidies during the '50s, Warner and a partner made a small fortune as developers in Birmingham, and later in Ohio.
Within two decades, Warner had a private jet, a 600-acre farm near the Kentucky border, a penthouse in Cincinnati, a stable of thoroughbreds, vast real estate holdings (including his Bal Harbour condo) and, at different times, interests in the New York Yankees, the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the USFL's Birmingham Stallions.
Warner became a rich man as his first marriage began to disintegrate. He was divorced after 27 years of marriage in 1969. "Contrary to what people think, Marvin did not want to divorce Jane," says a longtime friend of Jane Blach Warner Sabin. "It was Jane's decision, and he was disturbed by it."
Warner's interest in politics seems to have been triggered around that same time.
In 1970, Warner supported Democrat John Gilligan become governor of Ohio, and soon after received an appointment to the Ohio Board of Regents. It was there he met fellow regent George Steinbrenner. In 1974, when Steinbrenner bought the New York Yankees, Warner became an investor. He sold his 10 percent back to Steinbrenner three years later.
After flirting with Ohio politics for a while, he appeared on the national scene in 1975 as a major fundraiser for Jimmy Carter and was well rewarded when Carter named him ambassador to Switzerland, where he served from 1977 to 1979. He has financially supported both Ohio Democratic senators, Howard Metzenbaum and Glenn.
At the 1982 Democratic midterm convention in Philadelphia, Warner was one of the hosts of a lavish reception for Glenn.
Last year, when Glenn's campaign was faltering financially, Warner helped arrange a $2 million loan for Glenn from four Ohio banks and was one of a dozen or so supporters who signed a letter backing the loan.
In 1981 and 1982, following his divorce from Goldwater, Warner commissioned some public opinion polls on his name recognition before deciding against running for governor himself.
At that time, he began publicly shopping around for a Democratic candidate to support. With contributions of more than $70,000 to various candidates over the years, his backing meant significant financial leverage.
Warner met early on with William Brown, Ohio's attorney general at the time and one of three Democratic gubernatorial candidates to discuss the possibility of Warner's endorsement.
According to one Brown supporter, at one meeting Warner's support was offered on condition that Warner would be appointed to the Senate in the event John Glenn won the presidency in 1984 and vacated his seat.According to the Brown supporter, the offer was contingent on Brown's becoming governor, giving him the authority to appoint a midterm replacement for Glenn.
"No words were minced, and someone other than Warner made the offer straight out to Brown," he said. "Once the offer was made, there was a general discussion about it, in which Warner participated, stating what he wanted. Brown said 'no,' that he wasn't interested in the deal. There wasn't much to say after that. . . . The meeting was over and a few weeks later, Warner showed up supporting now Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste.
"I have never been in a room like this before."
Brown, now an attorney in Columbus, Ohio, said the story was true, but declined to elaborate.
Warner, who ultimately supported Celeste, says he met with Brown as well as the other candidates to discuss their positions on issues. He denies any such offer was made. "There was no suggestion or request of that nature," he says.
Paul Tipps, a Warner ally and then-Ohio Democratic Party chairman, says he didn't recall any such discussion at any meeting he attended. "I've heard it speculated about," he said. "I thought I was at all the meetings . . . I arranged all those meetings with Warner and Brown, Celeste and the third candidate Jerry Springer. There was no quid pro quo discussed. "Questions and Answers
Warner is the kind of person who seems to invites the word "controversial" in front of his name. "I don't know, there's got to be something to what people say," he concedes. "I certainly think tact and diplomacy are very important, but if I am in a group I express my ideas . . . I'm not so sure that all of us don't have a tinge of jealousy."
When he was nominated to be President Carter's ambassador to Switzerland, the American Foreign Service Association representative testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there was "little evidence" that Warner was qualified for the job and that "an examination of Warner's background suggests that the appointment is a reward for political support and substantial financial contributions."
"It was so blatantly political," said a member of Carter's Ambassadorial Screening Committee, a special group the Carter administration appointed to select ambassadors. "We kept rejecting it. We must have kicked his name back to the White House three times, and it just kept coming back."
Warner's confirmation hearing before the committee was guided through by his good friend and committee chairman, then-senator John Sparkman of Alabama, and he was confirmed without incident. At the time it was widely reported that Warner had done Sparkman a favor in 1972, when he talked George Wallace, a college classmate of Warner, out of challenging Sparkman for his Senate seat.
"When it comes right down to it," says Warner, "where are you going to find an American businessman of some experience -- not necessarily myself -- . . . of education, of some executive talent, where are you going to find someone you can hire for $66,000 a year?"
Other scenes from the Warner scrapbook: Once in Switzerland, Warner's way of doing business raised diplomatic eyebrows. In October of 1978, when he imported two dozen American cars for the auto show on the embassy lawn, huge CHRYSLER, FORD, and JEEP signs were draped from pillar to post, with multicolored banners blowing in the wind. Some 800 Swiss were invited to eat hot dogs and popcorn and listen to blaring disco music. Richard Thomas, owner of the Ohio -- Washington News Service, in a magazine article, quoted the managing editor of Switzerland's Tages Anzeiger newspaper, describing Warner's commercialism as not quite fitting the "parquet floors of international relations and repulses as often as it creates sympathy."
Says Warner: "The Europeans loved it. I wasn't going to go over there to pass the time away."
* In 1978, Warner flew Susan Clough to Switzerland to be his date at an annual diplomatic dinner at the Belleview Hotel in Bern. When she arrived, the Swiss refused to seat her because they were not married. Warner walked out of the dinner.
"Presumably, had he been someone of their liking and style, they would have seated me," says Clough today. "I am confident that Marvin was aware of the reputation he had with the ladies. He has an unusual style. Every successful businessman takes his style with him. He always treated me very well."
* On top of his other woes, Warner has been recently subpoenaed to testify about stock sales in a divorce case being brought by celebrity lawyer Marvin Mitchelson on behalf of the ex-wife of Burton Bongard, chairman of Home State.
* Warner observers say his life has always been a interesting mixture of practicality, lavish spending and philanthropy. He gave his housekeeper a car and a house in Cincinnati, while a former aide says Warner would berate him for flying first class. He pampers himself with massages and Jacuzzi time, while also having established a nonprofit foundation in his name that gives generously to Jewish organizations. The Crisis
For the past two months Warner has been staying at his Bal Harbour ocean-front condo, which has infuriated people in Ohio. He says he has not gone back because no one was talking to him anyway. He says he was being "ostracized." His principal lawyer is Hugo Black Jr., son of the late senator from Alabama and associate justice of the Supreme Court. He says he also has a lawyer looking into possible libel actions. He has hired Gray and Co. to handle his press.
Following the collapse of the Florida firm, E.S.M., Government Securities Inc. on March 4 -- which had $140 million in investments from Cincinnati's Home State -- Gov. Celeste closed 71 Ohio state savings and loans to prevent a run on the banks. The fall of E.S.M caused the collapse of Home State, which all but wiped out the private insurance fund that covered the 71 thrifts. All the banks but Home State have reopened; leaving more than 90,000 depositors still waiting for word on their money. A special prosecutor has been appointed by the Ohio attorney general to investigate the banking disaster.
What would he tell the blue-collar worker who has every last cent in Home State?
"They really wouldn't listen," he says. "They couldn't hear. The thing has been fulminated as having been my travesty, and until those depositors are satisfied, no matter how loud I raise my voice, it won't be heard above the din."
Warner has not been charged with any crime and said that he too was a victim. He has pointed out that he was the owner of Home State, which took the biggest fall from E.S.M.'s fraud.
"With all my heart," he said in an early interview with Columbus, Ohio, TV station WTVM, "I say to you that I am absolutely innocent of these allegations which have come from almost every quarter . . . and I will devote every ounce of my energy, and every ounce of my strength to proving that."
He has acknowledged that it was a mistake for Home State to invest so heavily in E.S.M., and says that it was the president of Home State who first discovered that E.S.M. was juggling the books. As a result, he says, he personally lost at least $25 million in real estate, for which Home State was holding the mortgages.
In a lengthy story published early this month, The Wall Street Journal detailed a 1982 confidential memo from the Ohio examiner's office warning that Home State's deals with E.S.M. were "unsafe and unsound." The paper reported that the memo said Home State had "sold" E.S.M. securities "with a book value of $208 million for just $83.8 million, leaving itself exposed for $125 million."
Lawyers for the state's commerce department in March filed a $432 million civil suit against the 12 Home State officers and directors, including Warner. The suit, in part, charges that Warner urged his bank to do business with E.S.M. in return for "illicit financial benefits," which included risk-free investments and low-interest loans for himself.
In a letter published in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal, Warner stated that the loans to him and his family were "good loans for Home State" which have been paid back or are current. He cited the fact that a loan to his son-in-law was being repaid at 5 percent over prime and his son was paying 14 percent on a secured loan.
In addition, Warner has had to confront questions about why he received back about $4.8 million of his own money from E.S.M. in January before the collapse. "It's crazy, it's nuts," says Warner, denying he had insider information about E.S.M.'s fraud. "What everyone seems to dismiss is that we discovered the fraud."
He says his account was closed out by E.S.M. in January without his knowledge. Asked if he thought that version of the story would be difficult for Home State depositors to swallow, he acknowledges:
"Very hard to believe," he says. "Perhaps it was an act of contrition on E.S.M.'s part . Who the hell knows? Look, when you're dealing with a fraudulent firm, and they've got two or three sets of books, they don't have to have reasons for what they do."
Last week, he filed a suit against E.S.M.'s auditors, Alexander Grant and Co., and Jose L. Gomez, a former partner of the Chicago-based accounting firm, asking $1.5 billion in damages in connection with audits of E.S.M. Warner alleges that he relied on the firm's auditing statements in deciding to invest in E.S.M. In March, the Securities and Exchange Commission also filed suit against Gomez, accusing him of fraud and of accepting $200,000 in payments from ESM officers.
Meanwhile, political analysts have been reviewing whether the crisis has done any damage to Gov. Celeste, one of the Democratic party's rising stars.
Warner was Celeste's principal financial backer and fundraiser in 1982, having personally contributed $36,000 to his campaign. Conservative estimates put Warner's fund-raising efforts for Celeste at more than $1 million. Some saythe sum is as high as $2 million.
Following the election, Celeste asked Warner to chair the highly-political Ohio Building Authority, a state agency which controls appropriations and management for state buildings.
Marvin Warner had a open door into Celeste's office. His calls were taken by the governor, and he met with him about once a month, according to the governor's staff.
A spokesman for Celeste denies that the governor knew of any of Home State's dealings.
Still, the relationship is being exploited by Republicans.
"The whole thing really has all the elements of a Greek tragedy," says James Tilling, a top GOP strategist in the Ohio Senate. "The very person who is responsible for making Celeste governor is the same person who will cause his downfall."
Recently, Celeste has tried to put distance between himself and Warner. "The way this thing has been painted in the press," says Warner, "he has no alternative."
The last call Celeste took from Warner, according to staff assistant to the governor, was in early March when Warner offered his resignation as chairman of the Ohio Building Authority.
"That is what has been the hardest part of all of this," said Warner's wife Jody several weeks ago, "how our so-called friends have deserted Marvin. We thought he and the governor were personal friends." Looking Ahead
For now, at least, Marvin Warner's future political involvement seems to be on hold. Several politicians interviewed for this article, who have received campaign money from Warner, did not want to talk for attribution. When an aide to one of the senators was asked if Warner has met with the senator since this crisis erupted, the aide said, "Are you kidding?"
For his part, Warner says flatly that he doesn't believe he will ever fully recover from this. "I just want to maintain my own self-respect, that's all. I want to believe in myself and in my integrity. I can't direct other people in what they think."
He says he will be turning his attention to writing a book with his wife on the whole affair. "We are taking detailed notes and keeping names of the personalities involved," Warner in an earlier telephone interview. "This whole thing is so unbelievable, it might as well be fiction."