The journalistic and official investigations that have dogged Bert Lance began with an unheralded, understated piece in Time magazine last May 23, reporting that Jimmy Carter's resident fiscal conservative was deeply in personal debt.
"I couldn't sleep nights if I had to service debts like Bert's," Time quoted a banker friend as saying, and went on to discuss what then seemed Lance's "most serious" problem:
He had promised Congress at his confirmation hearing to sell his large block of stock in the National Bank of Georgia, of which he had been president, to avoid any possible conflict of interest.
But he had borrowed to buy the stock, and its price had fallen so that ifhe were forced to sell, a large part of his paper fortune would disappear.
Congress' answer to that early problem was - at Carter's request - to give Lance additional time to sell. Supporters said Lance was being unfairly badgered. "I think we've gone completely ethics happy around here," Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) remarked as the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee agreed to extend the sale deadline. "We've gone crazy."
That pattern of inconclusive investigative thrust and official parry has held true ever since.
The Washington Post reported that, as Lance was negotiating for a $3.4 million personal loan from the First National of Chicago, his National Bank of Georgia deposited some of its money in the chicago institution interest-free, in a "correspondent account."
The Governmental Affairs Committee held another hearing. and Chairman Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.) snapped that Lance was being "smeared" by the press.
That was in July. In August, the Comptroller of the Currency concluded in a lengthy report that Lance's financial habits raised "unresolved questions as to what constitutes acceptable banking practice," but added. "We do not believe the information developed to date . . . warrants the prosecution of any individuals."
"Bert, I'm proud of you," Carter said as that report was issued.
Yesterday, however, Ribicoff went to the White House, together with his committee's ranking Republican, Charles H. Percy of Illinois, to tell Carter of unspecified new "allegations of illegalities of a serious nature" against Lance, and to urge that the budget director resign.
These new allegations reportedly have to do with Lance's earliest years as a banker, the years he spent in the tiny northwest Georgia town of Calhoun, where he married the banker's daughter.
These new allegations stem from a new investigation by the comptroller's office and from findings by congressional investigators.
Lance began his career as a banker in the tiny northwest Georgia town of Calhoun, where he married the banker's daughter.
Lance's rise to power - and the basis of his fortune - began in Calhoun when his father, a teacher, moved there when Bert was in the sixth grade. He soon became the friend of LaBelle David, whose grandfather was the principal owner of the local bank.
In 1951. at the age of 20, he married LaBelle David and soon after went to work at her family's bank, the Calhoun National, as a $90-a-week clerk.
He studied at Emory University and the University of Georgia and earned degrees at the School of Banking of the South at louisiana State University and at the Rutgers University graduate school of banking.
As the bank's assets increased, Lance developed a reputation as an aggressive innovative banker, rising quickly through the ranks at Calhoun National. In 1962, at the age of 32, he became president after LaBelle's father died.
Soon after. he joined the Young Presidents' Organization, a national fraternity of corporate presidents under the age of 40. His fortune rose with his career, as he accumulated enough stock in the bank to become a major owner.
In 1966. Lance met Jimmy Carter, who was then planning his unsuccessful first bid to become governor of Georgia. In an interview last year. Lance recalled this first meeting occurred during a strategy session in Rome, Ga.
"I walked up to him standing under a tree and was tremendously impressed by what he was saying and his reasons for wanting to run. I applauded that as a businessman." Typically, Lance declared on the spot that he would help Carter's campaign.
When Carter became governor in 1971. Lance followed him to the Statehouse, becoming state highway commissioner and attracting some attention for progressive reform in an agency that many Georgians derisively called "the department of paving and politics."
He left his appointive post two years later to lay the groundwork for his own bid to succeed Carter. but despite the expenditure of about $1 million of his own money and Carter's tacit backing, he narrowly missed the Democratic primary runoff.
His election defeat and attempts afterward to rebuild a financial base, by all accounts, were the genesis of Lance's later troubles.
Shortly after the election, he moved to Atlanta and along with two partners, bought 61 per cent of the stock in the National Bank of Georgia, giving them undisputed control.
To obtain 164-223 shares of the stock, for which he reportedly paid $1774 a share, Lance borrowed approximately $27 million from the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. of New York.
Later, he purchased an additional 26,639 shares, giving him about 20 per cent of the bank's stock.
As president, he set out on an aggressive campaign to compete with the larger Georgia banks, and the National Bank showed assets gains from $240 million in 1975 to $415 million currently, making it Atlanta's fifth largest bank.
At the same time, according to his former associates, Lance retained the informal "country banker" style that he had cultivated in Calboun.
The Calhoun bank's operations, it was said, were marked so much by small-town informality that federal prosecutors were at first baffled when they tried to reconstruct how a bank officer managed to embezzle about $1 million in 1974 and 1975.
By this time. Lance had already become one of Carter's closest personal and political intimates, and in 1975, after Carter's gubernatorial term ended. Lance's bank lent him $45 million, including a $39 million line of credit to buy peanut crops from farmers and $1 million for capital improvements to his warehouse business.
Since Carter had called Lance "one of the closest friends I have in the world." it came as little surprise when he was appointed to the top budget post in the new administration.
But shortly after he left Atlanta in December to follow Carter to Washington, the value of Lance's national Bank of Georgia stock began to fall from $18 a share to $1250 a share by the end of March.
The decline in value represented a clear investment loss for Lance. At the same time. he forced the possible loss of an estimated $160,000 annually when the bank did not pay a dividend that he could have hoped to apply to his already heavy debt stemming from his unsuccessful gubernatorial attempt and his purchase of control of the Atlanta bank.
A large part of his debt concerned a loan he received from the First National Bank of Chicago shortly after he had been nominated for the OMB post. The Chicago bank assumed the $27 million loan that Lance had received from Manufacturers Hanover to buy his National Bank of Georgia stock. and later expanded it to $3.4 million to permit Lance to satisfy interest and principal owed on another loan.
Lance's Atlanta bank also set up a correspondent account at Manufacturers Hanover when that bank granted him a personal loan.
In addition to the assertion that, in setting up correspondent accounts, he manipulated the National Bank of Georgia's assets for his personal profit, journalistic and government investigations have produced these other assertions about Lance:
He, his wife and members of her family, and his gubernatorial campaign committees all ran up sizable overdrafts at the Calhoun bank in the early 1970s.
No interest was asked or paid on these overdrafts until federal bank examiners began to require it in 1975. The examiners also insisted that the bank stop allowing Lance and the others exceed the balances in their accounts in what amounted to special loans.
In spite of this order from the comptroller's office, examiners have found what they regard as evidence that the Calhoun bank is still allowing Lance to overdraw his account. But the bank denies this, and the comptroller himself has not yet given an opinion on it.
Lance at one point pledged the same asset as collateral on two different loans.
It has also been reported that the comptroller's office failed to tell Ribicoff's committee all it knew of Lance's past practices at the time of his confirmation hearings.
The Internal Revenue Service has just completed an investigation of the actions of the comptroller's office during that period, and that report is supposed to be made public this week.