Backin January, when his name was first becoming familiar to the American public as a central figure in the savings-and-loan scandals, Charles H. Keating Jr., mounted a public-relations campaign as expansive as his financial dealings.

The boss of Lincoln Savings and Loan and its parent company, American Continental Corp. (ACC), the man who poured thousands of dollars into the campaign treasuries of the "Keating Five" senators, was all over TV. Far from being responsible for fraud that would cost the taxpayers $2 billion, as the government alleged, Keating insisted he was the innocent victim of overzealous, incompetent regulators who had illegally taken a profitable business operation away from him and run up record losses.

On a "Meet the Press" panel where I was one of the frustrated questioners, Keating looked right into the camera and said, "We had a profitable S&L. ... It operated profitably until the government confiscated it." Asked by NBC's Andrea Mitchell if he had not concocted a scheme to "bleed Lincoln and take the money to the parent company {ACC}," Keating said: "Of course not. That didn't happen. And as I say, truth will come to trial in the courtroom, and we'll be vindicated."

Keating's monumental self-assurance was backed by the fact that he had gone to court himself, suing the federal regulators to regain control of his S&L. Many viewers probably saw him as a harassed businessman, not the financial pirate that they had been led to expect.

Well, it turns out we had it right the first time. The hearing before District Judge Stanley Sporkin was a complex affair with conflicting testimony from accountants and lawyers, regulators and company officials. When the verdict came down on Aug. 24, Charles Keating caught a public-relations break he didn't deserve. Sporkin's findings were all but submerged in that day's dramatic news of Saddam Hussein's bizarre televised visit to British hostage families and a nose dive of the stock market plagued by the prospect of a Persian Gulf war.

What Sporkin said should not be lost. The onetime enforcement director of the Securities and Exchange Commission was not as easily buffaloed by Keating's self-assurance as we television interviewers had been. Nor was he dazzled and distracted by the complexity of Keating's financial maneuverings.

He found for the government on every single point and said that if the regulators hadn't seized the thrift, they would have been derelict in their duties.

"What has emerged," he wrote in his 50-page opinion, "is not a pretty picture. It is abundantly clear that ACC officials abused their positions with respect to Lincoln. Bluntly speaking, their actions amounted to a looting of Lincoln."

The basic device, Sporkin found, was a "tax-sharing" agreement under which Lincoln transferred $94 million between 1984 and 1987 to the parent company controlled by Keating, ostensibly to meet its payments to the Internal Revenue Service. But since "Lincoln in fact owed no taxes," and ACC had millions of dollars worth of offsetting losses from prior years, ACC essentially pocketed the money that really belonged to the Lincoln shareholders.

"This so-called tax-sharing agreement was nothing more than a clever but impermissible way of looting Lincoln by upstreaming funds from Lincoln to ACC," Sporkin ruled.

ACC, he said, had no "license to strip Lincoln of its funds, particularly because the funds upstreamed emanated from the savings of individual investors which were insured up to $100,000 per account by the federal government. ... There is simply no legal justification for these payments. Moreover, since ACC filed for bankruptcy on April 13, 1989, it is unable to repay Lincoln any part of the $94 million ACC received from Lincoln."

Having blown away Keating's denials that he had milked Lincoln for his own profit, Sporkin also demolished the financier's claims that all was well until the federal regulators took over. In March of 1988, Sporkin said, Janice Vincent of the Arthur Young accounting firm refused to approve a phony transaction that would have given Lincoln a paper profit of $24.6 million and allowed ACC to collect $10 million in "tax-sharing" for itself.

When she balked, Keating himself told her "he thought he would have to declare bankruptcy if we did not recognize this transaction." So desperate was Keating, that Sporkin says the financier tried to have Vincent removed from the audit. But she stood her ground, emerging as one of "the few heroes in this saga."

Other lawyers and accountants did no such thing, Sporkin notes. Instead, they twisted themselves into knots to find justifications for abetting and concealing Keating's manipulations. And that fact led the judge to say that while "blame for the savings and loan crisis" has fallen "on the various governmental participants and on the government's fostering of deregulation within the thrift industry, this court believes far too little scrutiny has been focused on the private sector."

And what does that bold private-sector spokesman, Charles Keating, say about this? Not a word. The man who was all over TV last winter has run for cover. "We haven't said anything," said his bankruptcy lawyer, James Feder.

That silence speaks volumes.