Two years after freewheeling management drove Maryland's savings and loan industry to the brink of collapse, the first of several major civil cases arising from the debacle is about to go to trial in Montgomery County. But some of the former S&L officials named as defendants say they cannot afford the legal services they would like, and questioned what the state hopes to gain by suing them.
In what is expected to be the longest and costliest trial in the county's history, the Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund will try to show that 10 former officials of First Maryland Savings & Loan of Silver Spring drove the thrift into insolvency by routinely pouring millions of dollars into high-risk investments, part of a pattern of deals designed to "line the pockets" of First Maryland executives and directors, according to MDIF's complaint.
Eight of the 10 defendants responded to the lawsuit, and in court documents they have denied any impropriety. Jury selection starts tomorrow.
MDIF, the state agency trying to recoup money for thousands of depositors victimized by the collapse of First Maryland and several other thrifts in 1985, is seeking at least $60 million from the 10 former officers and directors and five other defendants.
But several of the former First Maryland officials either have lawyers doing little work for them, or cannot afford attorneys, let alone civil damages, according to lawyers and the defendants themselves.
"It's the biggest waste of time and money I've ever seen," said James P. Ulwick of Baltimore, attorney for Julian M. Seidel of Potomac, the former $200,000-a-year president and board chairman of First Maryland.
Seidel is trying to get a real estate development business off the ground with one part-time employe, according to that employe.
Ulwick said he would "not be very active" in the case because Seidel "has already said he can't afford it." If the state prevails at the trial, Ulwick said, "they'll win awards they will never collect."
Neil J. Dilloff, an attorney with the prestigious Baltimore firm of Piper & Marbury, which represents MDIF, angrily disagreed.
"All I'll say is we have a big difference of opinion," he said. "We've conducted an investigation and we're satisfied that ample funds are available to make this case worthwhile from the state's perspective."
He would not say how MDIF attorneys arrived at the $60 million figure or how much the agency actually expects to collect.
Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan of Baltimore, who is overseeing the liquidation of several failed S&Ls, said the state has recouped nearly $140 million of the $281 million on deposit at First Maryland when it failed, and about 11,000 customers have been paid back in full. But the thrift still owes about $141 million to 5,500 depositors, Kaplan said.
In Montgomery, officials have been getting ready for weeks -- ordering supplies, clearing office space, installing equipment and sprucing up the auditorium of a former high school where 475 prospective jurors, too many to fit in a courtroom, will assemble for a selection process that is expected to last a week. The trial itself could continue past Christmas, said Judge Peter J. Messitte, who will preside.
Before the first day of testimony, the county will have spent at least $20,000 preparing for it, court officials said.
Seidel, 52, presided over an S&L that functioned like some other Maryland thrifts before the 1985 crisis. According to the MDIF complaint, First Maryland officials offered lofty interest rates to attract huge depositors from across the nation and embarked on sprees of extravagant lending to high-risk borrowers, keeping shoddy records, paying themselves exorbitant salaries and fees, engaging in numerous insider deals and generally ignoring the warnings of lenient state agencies.
Seidel would not comment on the case or his personal finances. Messitte said that of the eight defendants who responded to the lawsuit, all filed statements denying liability for the failure of First Maryland.
Another defendant, Gloria Meyers of Silver Spring, who was a vice president and personnel manager of First Maryland before it was placed in receivership in November 1985, described Seidel as "depressed" by his financial situation. As a part-timer, Meyers said she is the only employe of Seidel's fledgling business, which she identified as Jensom Financial Corp. of Silver Spring.
Describing herself as "a poor Jewish grandmother" who did nothing improper in her six years at First Maryland, Meyers said she stopped consulting an attorney after paying $17,000 in legal fees in the 18 months since MDIF filed its lawsuit. She said she will defend herself, although she is not a lawyer.
"I'm very nervous," she said. "I haven't slept well in a month."
She said Dilloff, the MDIF attorney, recently proposed a $20,000 out-of-court settlement of her case, but that she could not afford to pay the amount, even in installments.
"I'm going to be 55 years old," Meyers said. "Is this what I need the rest of my life to be like? I should work for them?"
Dilloff would not comment on such aspects of the case.
As for other defendants: Attorney Daniel F. Goldstein of Baltimore said he has stopped representing Robert J. Corletta of Annapolis, a former First Maryland director, because Corletta could not afford to continue his services. Corletta, who is not a lawyer, will represent himself, Goldstein said. Corletta declined to comment. John T. Kotelly, a Washington lawyer, said he no longer represents Edward A. Dacy of Rockville as a client because "he lacked funds" for future services. Dacy, a lawyer and former director of the thrift, will represent himself, Kotelly said. Dacy could not be reached. Lawyer Joel Sher of Baltimore said he will not attend every day of the trial because his client, Benjamin Maisel of Silver Spring, a former First Maryland director, could not afford the expense. Maisel, 80, said he could not afford to pay an attorney for a four-month trial.
Another defendant, David P. Coles of Columbia, S.C., First Maryland's former general counsel, has represented himself from the start. Two former executives of the thrift, James J. Smat of Gaithersburg and James R. Porter of Falls Church, have been found liable for civil damages because they failed to respond to the lawsuit, Messitte said.
Lawyers Goldstein and Kotelly said they represent Michael Finci of Rockville and Frank J. Calcara of Bethesda, both former directors, who have denied any wrongdoing while associated with First Maryland.
With so many defendants, Messitte said, "My task is to move this along."
Months ago, for example, his first pretrial order in the case directed lawyers to study the Federal Justice Center's Manual for Complex Litigation, a handbook of procedural tips for trials such as this.
For the trial, the two sides have submitted witness lists containing nearly 300 names. Combined, they plan to present about 1,500 exhibits, most of them financial documents.
At Silver Spring's Northwood High School, which closed two years ago, workers spruced up the auditorium in recent weeks and temporarily equipped it with an $8,000 audio system to record prospective jurors' answers to questions.
Jury Commissioner Florence Glass said her office began preparing for the trial in late May, mailing questionnaires to 2,500 registered Montgomery voters whose names were chosen by a computer. Asked if serving through a four-month trial would create a hardship, about 2,000 said it would, and all but two gave reasons that Glass found valid.
Many of the excuses came by telephone, sometimes as many as 100 a day.
"A lot of them wanted to know what the trial was," she said. "We weren't allowed to tell them."
The 475 who had no objection to serving are expected at Northwood tomorrow, Glass said, with each entitled to $15 in expense money for the day -- or $7,125 in county expenses, compared with $1,000 to $2,000 disbursed to prospective jurors on a typical day at the Justice Center in Rockville.
Messitte and lawyers will narrow the field to 24 jurors, including 12 alternates -- 11 more than usual.
For the jury selection at Northwood, maintenance workers cleaned four backstage dressing rooms, which are now offices for Messitte, lawyers and clerks. Four telephone lines were installed. Pamela Quick, the deputy court administrator, said she arranged the purchase of three tables and 80 chairs for the auditorium stage and set aside two rooms in the courthouse law library for use by lawyers during the trial.
More maintenance workers unbolted cushioned seats from Messitte's narrow, ninth-floor courtroom at the Justice Center, clearing space for extra counsel tables. Still more workers installed shelves for lawyers' books in three small conference rooms behind Messitte's bench.
Messitte, 46, appointed to the bench two years ago, volunteered for the trial.
"It's an opportunity to learn about the banking industry from top to bottom," the judge said. "You could never get this in a classroom."
Maryland thrift depositors received their lesson in the spring and summer of 1985, when chancy investments caught up with the entrepreneurs then controlling some of the state's S&Ls, according to a 457-page state-sponsored report on the industry.
Large, sophisticated depositors, their confidence shaken by a bank crisis in Ohio, began a steady withdrawal from Maryland thrifts, exposing the fragility of those high-flying institutions with portfolios of highly speculative loans. Many were stretched thin.
Soon small depositors, desperate to retrieve their savings, were clamoring at locked doors.
Like other S&Ls, First Maryland eventually imploded, and Kaplan ordered it into receivership. MDIF, created in the wake of the disaster, began selling the thrift's assets and preparing to sue its directors and officers.
Similar cases are pending against former officials of three other thrifts, including Old Court Savings & Loan of Baltimore.
MDIF sued Julian Seidel and his former colleagues on March 14, 1986. Pretrial motions and other documents began swelling the case file. Today it comprises nearly two dozen folders, all waiting in the Northwood auditorium.
Stacked together, they stand three feet high.