With the stroke of a judge's pen one year ago today, the State of Maryland became a banker and the lord of a real estate empire, taking over Old Court Savings & Loan of Baltimore, a large thrift that was collapsing under a siege of depositors withdrawing their money.
Today, the state officials and private consultants sent in to stem the crisis in confidence that hit Old Court and other thrifts speak with amazement at the complex solutions that have emerged involving almost the entire state legal bureaucracy.
The savings and loan crisis "has certainly been the biggest legal problem this state has ever faced," said Dennis Sweeney, an assistant state attorney general. "I hope and pray we'll see some sorting out over the next year that gets us to a more manageable and less expensive stage. One has to begin to ask oneself: Is that a productive use of your assets?"
Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed in cases involving thrifts and thrift owners, some by the state, some by individuals, according to the Baltimore judge who has handled many of the cases. The paper work is extensive: One civil suit against Old Court alone has produced a six-foot-high stack of legal papers.
At one point the law firm hired by the state to handle legal problems at Old Court was using 53 lawyers. Even now, more than 30 lawyers in the state attorney general's office spend much of their time on savings and loan investigations, and the state has paid $5 million in legal fees so far stemming from its suits against Old Court and two other thrifts -- Community of Bethesda and First Maryland of Silver Spring.
Some lawyers working on Old Court cases say that sheer expense and complexity will, in the end, force courtroom opponents to sit down, talk and settle their differences.
Until that happens, said Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, assigned to oversee the liquidation of Old Court, "I just handle one problem and move on to the next one. If I ever got mired down, it would take a great deal to get unmired."
When the state began dismantling Old Court, it brought in experts from the large Chevy Chase Savings & Loan to assess Old Court's problems, which included questionable real estate investments and insider loans.
Theodore Chandlee, a real estate consultant hired by Chevy Chase and still working at Old Court, said the problems they faced were "mindboggling . . . . The most immediate problem we found was that there were just no records at all. Our first task was to build a data base and find out where these assets were, what they were, who the partners were, what Old Court's involvment was, what the balances were."
Melville S. Brown, director of a state oversight agency formed during the thrift crisis, described the chaos at Old Court in similar terms in a recent report that noted: ""Old Court's mortgage portfolio was so poor and ill documented that it was "unsalable . . . even on a discount basis." Loans on single-family homes were among the soundest of Old Court's loans, Brown said, but they had already been pledged as security on unpaid loans from the Federal Reserve Bank.
Those assigned to sift through the rubble of Old Court said they were hampered by a lack of cooperation from Old Court's then owners, and the managers at the level below the owners were let go. Several former Old Court accountants remain on the staff of about 90 still working at Old Court, but most employes are new.
Even if everyone had remained at Old Court, Chandlee said, they could not have helped a lot: The thrift "grew so fast that they had never built an organization that could have kept track of even what [former owner] Jeffrey Levitt was doing."
In the beginning of their search, Brown's agency, the Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund, and Old Court workers followed leads from newspaper articles and casual conversations. In one case, MDIF learned that Old Court owned a particular condominium when MDIF officials received a notice that they were behind on condominium fee payments. In another case, a bar owner mentioned at a Baltimore County liquor board hearing that he had an undocumented loan from Old Court.
"It was probably around December or January that we began to feel that most of the closet doors had been opened, and most of the skeletons had been counted," Chandlee said.
Once all of Old Court's property is found -- mostly commercial land in Maryland, Florida, New York and Georgia -- it must be inspected and looked after, until the web of mortgages, deeds and partnerships are untangled and the property can be sold. This creates problems both big and small: Old Court recently dispatched an officer to sort out the management of a shopping center in Atlanta, and pacify its tenants whose garbage had not been collected.
The state's task in settling Old Court's finances is made complicated by the fact that people who had money tied up in the thrift want more than their money back, and they know a judge is handling thrift cases on almost a daily basis, MDIF workers say.
"No matter what we do, people aren't happy and they sue us," said Nancy Nyman, who is in charge of real estate disposition for MDIF. "We foreclose on a property and the person who was a joint venture partner contests the sale, because he stood to gain money if it sold for more than the loan amount. There isn't anything we do that doesn't result in someone suing us."
Old Court has been a bonanza for the Baltimore law firm of Frank, Bernstein, Conaway & Goldman, which was appointed to handle the bulk of the thrift's legal affairs. So far the firm, which has been charging the state less than its normal rate, has been paid about $3 million. It is that firm that had 53 lawyers working at one time; in December alone, the lead attorney billed the state $22,361.60 for 174.7 hours' work.