The owners and directors of Old Court Savings & Loan Association today voluntarily agreed to a court order that freezes most of their personal assets for the duration of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit brought against them by a state agency.
While today's action involved civil litigation, the specter of growing criminal investigations cast a giant shadow over the proceedings in a courtroom so crowded with lawyers -- about 40 of them representing a dozen defendants -- that some had to stand in the back, out of sight of Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan.
Many of the defense attorneys complained that the state was unfairly attacking them on two fronts: in the civil suit and in criminal investigations by state and federal grand juries.
The defendants won delays in producing documents and statements sought by the Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund (MDIF), Old Court's conservator, after arguing that revealing the information could harm them in the criminal investigations being conducted by the Maryland attorney general and by the U.S. attorney for Maryland. The civil suit was filed Wednesday by MDIF, which was created to replace the privately funded Maryland Savings-Share Insurance Corp. (MSSIC) after a management change at Old Court in May sparked a crisis in the state thrift industry.
Also today, court papers showed that a group of Washington investors has offered to buy the Williamsburg Square Plaza shopping mall in Ocean City. The mall was financed with $6.5 million in loans from Old Court to the thrift's president that state officials say were not approved by the thrift's board of directors nor disclosed to state regulators.
Today's pleadings were the first opportunity for the 26 defendants to respond on the record to the 11-count civil suit. The suit is seeking $200 million in damages in what MDIF said could be "the largest financial fraud in the history of the state of Maryland."
Several attorneys complained bitterly that the material sought by MDIF could prejudice their clients' criminal defense.
Paul Mark Sandler, representing Old Court's deposed president, Jeffrey A. Levitt, said furnishing the requested documents could be "highly prejudicial" and "erode" Levitt's Fifth Amendment rights in the criminal investigation.
Further, he said, complying with MDIF's request is "humanly impossible." Sandler said Levitt already has furnished "hundreds of documents" to the state as the result of dozens of subpoenas in the criminal investigations.
Sandler said he wanted to "dehusk" the civil complaint, saying it was filled with "outrageously exaggerated allegations stretching a lawsuit for simple accounting into a sensationalized lawsuit."
In the suit, Old Court's three owners, Levitt, Allan H. Pearlstein and Jerome Cardin, were described as a "troika . . . masquerading behind the facade of a savings and loan association" who "treated depositers' funds as their own private slush fund." The conservator alleged that those three and their families and businesses, along with Ocean City developer Walter L. Otstot, took more than $13.6 million in fees out of Old Court between August 1983 and last month.
Pearlstein's lawyer, Andrew Jay Graham, said that "with the public knowledge that his client is under intense scrutiny by the law enforcement officials of this state, no prudent attorney would allow his client to answer questions about any of the transactions" outlined in the MDIF suit.
Cardin's attorney, John K. Villa of the Washington firm of Williams & Connolly, said his client and businesses he has represented as a lawyer "have received documentary subpoenas from both (federal and state) grand juries."
In opposing the freeze, Villa said, "It would be preposterous to suggest . . . that Mr. Cardin or his assets are going anywhere -- his long ties to this state are well known." Cardin was general manager and counsel for Old Court for 22 years before Levitt and Pearlstein became majority stockholders in September 1982.
One of the motions filed today revealed that Levitt and Otstot have found a buyer for Williamsburg Square Plaza. Otstot's lawyer, H. Russell Smouse, said a sales contract calls for the buyer to pay $7 million for the mall, allowing Levitt and Otstot to pay off the $6.5 million mortgage they got from Old Court, "albeit at substantial financial sacrifice to Otstot."
The potential buyer is a group of Washington investors headed by David A. DeSanto, who operates a Tysons Corner tax and financial planning service.
In another motion, Otstot asked that he be allowed to sell three condominums -- not financed by Old Court -- to pay medical expenses of his terminally ill granddaughter. Without such a sale, the motion said, the girl would have to go on welfare.
Under terms of today's agreement, neither the shopping center nor the condos could be sold without MDIF's approval, or an order from the judge. Judge Kaplan did not rule on Otstot's motion.
Kaplan said that "a lot of the civil proceedings will be delayed by the criminal investigations."
The freeze of assets does not limit the defendants to a dollar amount, but Kaplan said that "they can't buy a new Mercedes, but they can pay their mortgages . . . . If part of their life style is wheeling and dealing, this will curb that. But if it using cream on their cereal, it will not."
Also today, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board announced that four more former MSSIC members have won approval of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp., bringing the number covered to 20. The newly accredited institutions are Hopkins, Regal, Fairmount and Midstate, all of Baltimore.