Six hundred depositors who are barred from withdrawing their money from two of Maryland's crippled savings and loan associations launched a campaign today to convert their shared outrage and frustration into political power to speed release of their funds.
With petitions, collection plates, singing, homemade signs and repeated warnings to absent politicans, customers of Community Savings & Loan of Bethesda and Old Court Savings and Loan in Baltimore joined forces for the first time to pressure the state government to grant them and thousands of their fellow depositors the right to withdraw funds now frozen in those thrift institutions.
"Today you're angry depositors; tomorrow you can be a very strong voting bloc," said Toni Handley, who led a successful effort in Ohio to free up deposits after thrift associations collapsed in that state this year.
Community and Old Court depositors, who rallied for 90 minutes in a high school auditorium, gave Handley a standing ovation after she urged them to take "dramatic" steps to attract media attention and use "personal" appeals to goad Gov. Harry Hughes and members of the General Assembly into granting them immediate access to their deposits.
Her upbeat message delighted Old Court customers, whose money was frozen by court order in May, and account holders at Community, where deposits were frozen a month ago. Maryland state officials sought and won government conservatorship of Old Court after reports of mismanagement. The state later took control of Community after its giant real estate subsidiary collapsed.
The state, through an agency called the Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund (MDIF), has day-to-day control of the affairs of both thrifts, and government officials say the deposit freezes are needed to preserve the associations' supplies of cash. Old Court, with an estimated $175 million debt, has about 73,000 depositors; Community has about 30,000.
Deposits are also frozen at First Maryland in Silver Spring and Merritt Commercial Savings and Loan in Baltimore, but few of those depositors appeared to have attended the rally. The Maryland General Assembly is expected to meet in special session this month to consider measures that would allow New York financial institutions to buy these two thrifts.
Five days ago, at a meeting of 500 Community depositors in Greenbelt, MDIF Director Melville S. Brown asked customers to be patient and said his staff was working on a plan to allow limited withdrawals for Community and Old Court depositors who are experiencing severe hardships.
However, apparently few depositors have taken Brown's message to heart. Alfred Lucarelli, a truck driver from Glen Burnie who has $1,800 tied up in Old Court, told a reporter he was so angry about the state's handling of the savings and loan crisis that he will not pay a $792 state property tax bill that was due Sept. 30.
"Let 'em come to me to get their money," Lucarelli said.
Fred A. Schnur, a Columbia resident who has more than $10,000 frozen in Old Court, said, "The time has come to stop listening to our legislators give us double talk. Politicians love apathy, and we the victims in this crisis can't afford to be apathetic. We're a sleeping giant, and the giant just woke up."
Schnur and a small number of other Columbia area residents met two weeks ago and formed the Maryland Savings and Loan Depositors Committee, planning the rally today as a way to unite S&L customers across the state.
The committee's first major act will be to stage a peaceful demonstration in Annapolis Thursday, as members of the state Senate and House of Delegates meet to prepare for a special legislative session.
"We want an alternative to wait, wait, wait," said John McHale, who works for IBM in Rockville and whose 78-year-old mother has $100,000 in Community. "We want the state to listen and respond to us now."