It's hard to think of a recent federal official who, on balance, has enjoyed a friendlier or more flattering press than Budget Director Bert Lance. Yet the members of the Senate committee charged with checking on his financial condition complain that he has been "smeared" and persecuted by the press.
Lance's personal fiscal status has invited attention from the start, beginning last December when he was appointed head of the Office of Management and Budget. But the Senate confirmation hearing, at which he admitted debts of $5,343,000 while claiming assets of $7,768,000, was as superficial as the latest Senate checkup.
However, Lance's ownership of some 200,000 shares of the National Bank of Georgia, from which he resigned as president to join President Carter's administration, represented such a potential conflict of interest that the new OMB chief promised to sell the stock before the year was out. With that he was confirmed, with the blessing of both the Senate and the media.
Lance, has now been in office in recent weeks that the media began in a spotty, gingerly, cautious way to report a number of facts about his financial condition that were so disturbing that the Senate felt obliged to hold a second hearing.
There is no evidence of a deliberately planned press campaign to "get" Lance. On the contrary, the recent publicity about him has been more or less prompted by spontaneous developments, with only a limited amount of digging by a handful of newsmen. Most of the reporting has been interrogatory rather than accusatory.
Despite this, the chairman of the Senate Government Affairs Committee, Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.), said to Lance, "You have been smeared from one end of the country to the other, in my opinion unjustly." Investigative reporters, he protested, are trying "to get everybody - that's the name of the game today." Another committee member, Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), said to Lance, "It's nice of you to drop by and prove your innocence."
The committee's lack of curiousity was matched the following day by a batalion of reporters who atended a presidential press conference but failed to ask Carter a single question about his controversial budget director.
Since Carter has so often emphasized his dedication to "open government" and the need for "full disclosure," it surely would not have been improper for the White House press corps to seek the Chief Executive's view on the subject, especially since the President himself has ties to Lance's old bank.
Soon after Lance became president of the National Bank of Georgia, the bank extended loans and credits of $4.7 million to Carter's business complex at Plains, Ga. Was it a "friendly" loan? Did Carter get better terms than the ordinally borrower? What was the interest rate? The conditions of repayment? The extent of collateral?
No doubt Carter could answer all these questions without embarrassment, but a press corps that is supposed to be hounding his budget director made no effort to determine what obligations, if any, the President is under to Lance.
The OMB chief has already acknowledged that he ownes $5.3 million to various banks and other institutions. As a Senate staffer says, "People who owe money can come under great pressure," particularly if, like the budget boss, they are involved in so many aspects of government's relations with business and banking.
Back in May, Time quoted Dan Patillo, Lance's banking partner, as saying, "I couldn't sleep nights if I had to service debts like Bert's." It was not until the end of June, however, that the Lance story became front-page news, sparked by Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wisc.), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, when he publicly accused the budget director of "flagrantly violating the terms of his confirmation agreement with the Senate."
Although Lance had pledged not to become involved in banking legislation, Proxmire faulted him for using his influence in an effort to kill a controversial banking provision in a housing bill before Congress.
The disposition of Lance's 200,000 shares in the National Bank of Georgia (which he bought at an average price of $17.50 a share) is still unresolved. Because of recent losses from bad loans, plus the Lance publicity, the market value of the stock has sharply dropped, ranging from $8.50 to a current $11.50 per share. The budget chief told the Senate that this is no longer a problem, since an Atlanta businessman, David Smith, is said to be interested in buying Lance's stock at around $17 a share, or over $1 million above the present market value of the securities. The deal has yet to go through, however, and if it does the precise quid pro quo for the inflated purchase price is not yet known. Lance's stock by itself would not give Smith control of the bank.
The most serious problem of all, though, is Lance's mountain of debt, on which the interest payments alone add up to $373,000 a year. Can he handle this - and, if so, how? As president of his Atlanta bank Lance earned around $150,000 a year in salary, fee and perquisites, but that income has ceased.
He also got another $150,000 annually from dividends on his bank stock, but the new president of that institution indicates that the dividends will have to be eliminated or sharply reduced in view of recent losses.
As budget director, Lance gets $57,000 a year, which probably would not even cover his sumptuous style of living. He gets some income from other holdings, but apparently not nearly enough to service the $5.3 million he owes.
Charles Presley, chairman of the Georgia Railroad Bank and Trust Company, and a longtime friend of Lance, loaned the OMB head $651,000 in 1976 on extremely favorable terms. Presley told Time: "There were some smiles down here when Bert was selected to run OMB. That's not the Bert we know. He'll have to change his philosophy."