In the aftermath of the state's thrift crisis in 1985, when the Maryland attorney general decided to do without the aid of the U.S. attorney's office in the prosecution of former Old Court Savings & Loan executives, state officials came in to some criticism.
Some state politicians and lawyers in the U.S. attorney's office said they believed that then-attorney general Stephen H. Sachs grabbed the Old Court case for the political mileage he could get during his gubernatorial candidacy the next year.
Sachs' answer was that public confidence was badly shaken by the failure of thrift regulators, and some sort of action was needed right away. Federal prosecutors working under a special federal racketeering statute could get longer prison terms and mandatory forfeiture of assets, but they would take too long to build their cases.
Now, more than two years after that prediction, federal prosecutors are about to bring their first thrift case to trial. Gerald S. Klein, former owner of Merritt Commercial Savings & Loan Association of Baltimore, and three of his former associates are to go on trial Nov. 16 on charges of conspiracy and racketeering in connection with Merritt's 1985 collapse.
Federal grand jury investigations into the management of three other thrifts continue: Friendship Savings and Loan, of Bethesda; Community Savings & Loan, of Bethesda; and First Maryland, of Silver Spring.
In contrast, the state has obtained convictions of half a dozen Old Court figures, notably former owner Jeffrey Levitt, who is serving a 30-year jail sentence. Restitution has been ordered from some -- and in Levitt's case that has meant a recovery for depositors of $14.7 million.
Federal officials will not comment on the thrift investigations, but it is known that a major factor in the slower pace of the federal cases is their complexity. While state prosecutors have indicted individual thrift officials on such relatively simple charges as theft and breach of fiduciary duty, federal prosecutors are assembling larger cases that involve more defendants and more complicated charges that are more difficult to prove.
In the Merritt case, for example, the defendants are charged in a 40-count indictment with conspiring to siphon off $45 million in thrift funds for Klein-related real estate deals and insider loans and fees. Under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, the defendants could be forced to turn over the $45 million as "ill-gotten gains" and could face long prison sentences if convicted.
Proving RICO violations will be a complex task, however, requiring that prosecutors show that the defendants not only committed criminal acts, but also participated in a "continuing criminal enterprise." The RICO statute has been used in recent years to try to break up organized crime families.
Deputy State Attorney General Charles O. Monk III, who has handled the state's thrift prosecutions, said he has sympathy for federal prosecutors trying to put together such all-encompassing cases.
"It will naturally take them longer up front," Monk said. "We break them down into smaller pieces and do them one at a time."
In addition to the federal and state criminal cases against former thrift officials, many of them have been faced with major civil suits filed by the Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund, the state agency acting as receiver for Old Court, First Maryland and several smaller thrifts that went under during the 1985 crisis.
Former First Maryland owner Julian M. Seidel and other officials of the thrift are in the midst of a trial on MDIF's $60 million claim that they poured millions into high-risk investments as part of a pattern designed to "line the pockets" of executives and directors. The trial began last month in Montgomery County Circuit Court and is expected to last into November.
Most of the defendants, including Seidel, have said they cannot afford attorneys and are representing themselves. There is speculation in legal circles that the defendants are holding whatever funds they have to do battle in a criminal case later.