Dismissing the charges against him as "totally ridiculous," Bert Lance pleaded innocent today to a federal indictment that he and three associates repeatedly violated federal banking laws to obtain loans totaling more than $20 million.
Lance, President Carter's former budget director, appeared for his arraignment in U.S. District Court here, where he met for the first time the government's chief attorney in the case, Edwin J. Tomko, 35, of the Justice Department's Crininal Frauds Division.
"Mr. Lance, it's nice to meet you," said Tomko. Lance smiled and shook hands with the prosecutor, who headed the 17-month grand jury probe that produced Wednesday's criminal indictment.
The three other defendants in the case also pleaded innocent during the same five-minute session before U.S. Magistrate Allen L. Chancey Jr.
The men indicted were his former trustee, Thomas M. Mitchell, who handled Lance's business affairs while he was in Washington; Richard T. Carr, a onetime banking associate of Lance, and H. Jackson Mullins, a former Calhoun, Ga., druggist who allegedly lent his name to a variety of Lance's alleged financial manipulations.
The four defendants were finger-printed, photographed and released without bail. No trial date has been set.
The 71-page indictment accused Lance and his colleagues of illegally obtaining 383 loans for themselves, their families and associates from 41 banks.
The grand jurors said the defendants showed a "reckless disregard for the safety of the banks" that made loans to the four men even though there was "no reasonable expectation of repayment."
In all, the four men were indicted on 33 counts of conspiracy, knowingly making false statements to obtain loans, making false bank entries, misapplication of bank funds and defrauding various U.S. regulatory agencies.
The two main banks involved in the indictments were Calhoun First National Bank and National Bank of Georgia. Lance headed both banks until January 1977, when he became head of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
He was forced to resign in September 1977, after an early series of investigations into his banking affairs by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and the U.S. comptroller of the currency.
The day produced a fresh burst of the themes the defendant have raised to counter the indictment. They blamed, in varying measure, the federal bureaucracy, the press, the comptroller of the currency and an alleged bias against southern banks.
Lance showed up at the courthouse first, strolling slowly by himself until TV camera crews and reporters spoted his bearish figure half a block away and clustered around him, holding up traffic in every direction. Horns honked. Lights changed. Cameras whirred. Lance smiled.
"I said something about media pressure," he observed in mid-intersection, alluding to his initial statement Wednesday about the indictment. "Would you call this media pressure?"
At one point, he was asked whether, in declaring his innocence, he was saying he didn't perform the acts mentioned in the indictment or whether he was saying the activites weren't illegal.
"I'm not going to comment out here in this sort of atmosphere," Lance replied, pausing for still photographers and apologizing for stepping on various toes.
The same crowd scene was repeated after the arraignment, where Lance was represented by Atlanta attorney Nickolas P. Chilivis.
"Y'all be careful," Lance said as reporters spilled onto the street. "I don't want any of you to get run over. I want this same crowd around when I'm found innocent."
Speaking of the indictment, he said, "I find it to be totally ridiculous," But he declined to get into any details. "I am not going to comment until I read the indictment," he said.
Meanwhile, inside the courtroom, Mitchell held an impromptu news conference.
A lawyer, Mitchell, when asked if he had been released on his own recognizance, quipped, "I've been assigned to the news media."
But Mitchell also spoke harshly about U.S. Comptroller of the Currency John Heimann, whom he accused of having a bias against southern banks, especially Georgia banks.
He said Heimann was ignoring problem banks in New York, where he once was state banking superintendent, and concentrating instead of little southern banks that lend money "to good honest conservative Christian farmers."
Heimann's agency oversees national banks, and his examiners took part in the grand jury probe of Lance's and Mitchell's banks. Heimann had no comment about Mitchell's criticisms.
Mitchell also claimed that Lance came under attack from the "Washington bureaucrats" because he was assigned by Carter to reorganize the federal government. CAPTION: Picture 1, Bert Lance, surrounded by reporters, arrives at the federal courthouse in Atlanta for his arraignment. UPI; Picture 2, RICHARD T. CARR . . . a former Lance associate