President Carter was unaware that his family peanut business regularly overdrew its account with the National Bank of Georgia and probably would not have approved such a business practice, White House press secretary Jody Powell said yesterday.
Making the first White House response to a report issued Wednesday by a special committee of the bank's board of directors, Powell said the president also did not know why interest rates on loans from the bank to the Carter business were regularly reduced.
The 131-page report, ordered as part of a settlement of a government suit, covers the bank's activities from the time Bert Lance became its president in January 1975 until the present. Lance, a friend of the president, was Carter's first federal budget director. He resigned under pressure in October 1977 because of his past financial affairs.
During the period covered by the report, Carter was running for president and had turned over the day-to-day operations of the family business to his brother, Billy. When he took office as president in 1977, Carter placed his interest in the business in a "blind trust" administered by aother friend, Atlanta lawyer Charles H. Kirbo.
In one of its key findings, the report said the overdraft problem became so serious that in June 1977 a bank loan officer was prompted to write to Billy Carter to tell him the bank was holding about $400,000 in payment requests "with no funds to cover" them.
Powell said yesterday the overdrafts apparently occurred because of delays in getting peanuts -- the collateral for the line of credit -- from the fields to the warehouse, and because of lags in record keeping both at the warehouse and at the bank.
The series of complex loans to the Carter peanut warehouse business was initiated by Lance in June 1975, some five months after Lance joined NBG as president. The first loan was for $600,000 to build a peanut sheller. Later, in December 1975, the Carter operation borrowed $300,000 to build a new warehouse.
The Carters also got a $3 million line of credit from NBG inJuly 1975, increased to $9 million in September, to finance the purchase of peanut crops from farmers around Plains, Ga.
According to the report, Billy Carter often failed to keep the NBG line of credit properly collateralized. The collateral was warehouse receipts for peanuts or peanut seeds held by the Carter operation.
This led the Carter account to be overdrawn by as much as $400,000, but the report says "the loan officer held the checks until funds were available to pay them."
The report states: "This practice apparently resulted from pressure by Lance to avoid overdrafts...."
The NBG report said the Carter account was "poorly managed" by the bank. Powell said he had not asked Carter what he thought of the business practices.
"But knowing the president's attitude toward money, I think he would be inclined to do business differently," he added.
The report said the interest rates on the Carter loans were reduced in at least one case at Lance's direction. NBG officials said yesterday they had difficulty documenting the reasons for the other reductions, but said the rates appeared to be in line with those charged to other major business customers.
According to the report, Lance wrote to Carter in 1976 about one interest rate reduction. The bank committee said it could not locate a copy of the letter and Powell said White House officials also had failed to find the letter but were still looking.
The press secretary said the president recalled once mentioning to his brother, in 1975 or 1976, that he thought the interest rates were too high, suggesting they should be reduced. But he said the president played no role in the reductions.
Powell also said that Carter will reimburse the bank for $782 for his personal use of the bank's airplane. Carter's campaign committee previously had reimbursed NBG for use of the plane during the presidential campaign.
Federal regulators involved in the Lance investigations generally were impressed by the report. One Securities and Exchange Commission official called it "courageous and correct," while a Justice Department attorney labeled it "evenhanded."
The report, ordered as part of the settlement of a government suit last April, was prepared by two nonbank directors who were appointed to the NBG board, also as part of the settlement. They are Lindsey Hopkins III, an independent businessman, and Church Yearley, a retired banker, both of Atlanta.
The suit last April accused Lance and the two banks he headed, NBG and Calhoun, (Ga.), First National Bank of "fraud and deceit" in their financial dealings. It was brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the comptroller of the currency.
In settling the suit, Lance and the banks consented to the judgment while neither "admitting nor denying" the allegations.
In its report, the bank reviewed the charges, paragraph by paragraph, and confimed virtually all of them with the phrase: "The allegations... appear to be essentially accurate..."
Lance's financial dealings and those of some of his business associates are under investigation by a federal grand jury in Atlanta, which reportedly is close to issuing criminal indictments.
Hopikins and Yearly said their efforts to gain testimony from witnesses were hampered by the grand jury.
"In general," the report said, "it is our belief that the grand jury investigation had an inhibiting effect, difficult to calculate in degree but nevertheless clearly present, in respect to our attempt to discharge our investigative duties."