The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee decided yesterday to call Budget Director Bert Lance for questioning Monday about the circumstances of a $3.4 million loan he got from a Chicago bank and other aspects of his personal finances.
The move concluded an hour-long dispute within the committee over a proposal by Chairman Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.) to order an immediate staff investigation of Lance's dealings and then give him a chance "to respond and explain."
Alluding to a Friday report in The Washington Post concerning the chronology of the Chicago bank loan, and to other articles, Ribicoff said he felt "serious allegations" had been raised, "too serious to let them go by the board without the attention of this committee."
But instead of going along with Ribicoff's plan for a staff inquiry, the committee finally agreed to hear Lance first and then meet again in executive session to wrestle with the question of whether to conduct any investigation.
"I'm very concerned about what's happening to government," Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) protested on Lance's behalf. "I think we are eating ourselves alive. The phrase 'appearance of conflict of interest' has now become a part of the language . . . (But) we should not see impropriety in everything that comes along."
The Post reported that the National Bank of Georgia which Lance headed, opened a $200,000 non-interest-hearing account at the First National Bank of Chicago on Dec. 8, 1976 - one month before Lance obtained a $3.4 million personal loan from the Chicago bank.
A spokesman for First National of Chicago, Nicholas Poulos, said yesterday, however, that the initial deposit by the Georgia bank was $50,000, not $200,000 as he had originally stated. He said the Georgia bank's "correspondent" banking account stayed at $50,000 until March 30 when it was increased to "about $200,000" in a single deposit.
The transactions raised the question of whether the Georgia bank's non-interest-bearing deposits could be construed as a so-called compensating balance for the loan made to Lance. In recent years, the office of the comptroller of the currency, which regulates national banks, has sent several compensating-balance cases to the Justice Department for prosecution as a potential misapplication of bank funds.
It was uncertain whether the Ribicoff committee would move ahead with an investigation after Monday's hearing, but the Senate Banking Committee headed by William Proxmire (D-Wis.) may conduct one of its own. Proxmire, who has already criticized Lance on other grounds, said he has ordered his staff to make preliminary inquiries about Lance's financial dealings because he felt they warranted thorough exploration.
Although the terms of the $3.4 million Chicago bank loan to Lance had not been previously disclosed, one source close to Lance said yesterday the interest on it is three quarters of a percentage point above the prime rate - the rate a bank charges its best corporate customers for a loan.
"As the prime rate goes up and down, the level of the interest goes up and down," this source explained. The loan calls for quarterly payments of interest from Lance, and he was said to be making them on schedule.
Lance has been sharply critical of bankers in recent months for raising their prime rates. The OMB director's press spokesman, Robert Dietsch, said earlier this week, however, that "it is totally unfair and irresponsible to think for one minute that Bert Lance is advocating a low prime rate just because of his personal financial position."
Dietsch also maintained that Lance, as a holder of some 200,000 shares of National Bank of Georgia stock, would stand to gain "a helluva lot more" from increases in the prime rate and their beneficial impact on bank profits.
The Ribicoff committee had been prepared at yesterday's meeting to approve a request from President Carter and set aside a conflict-of-interest rule requiring Lance to sell his NBG stock by the end of the year. In a letter to the committee last week, the President said both Lance and Georgia bank would suffer "an undue financial burden" if the deadline had to be met.
The price of the bank's stock has dropped sharply in recent months as some $2.8 million in real estate loans turned sour. Lance told the Ribicoff committee last week that he would lose $1.6 million if he had to seel the stock now.
Ribicoff indicated that the committee would have readily approved the deadline waiver at yesterday's session had it not been for the Post report coming on the heels of critical articles earlier in the week about Lance's dealings in Time magazine and The New York Times.
Sens. Danforth, James Sasser (D-Tenn.) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) all protested sharply that Lance ought not be required to hold into his bank stock in any case.
Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) said he still didn't think the deadline should be lifted just yet."If we release Mr. Lance from his pledge," he argued, "we lose the ability to fashion a remedy that might be appropriate."