Bert Lance, President Carter's good firend and first budget director, is scheduled to go on trial today in federal court in Atlanta on charges of criminal bank fraud and conspiracy.
Last-minute maneuverings could produce a delay, but the trial judge has said he intends to begin selecting a jury at 10:30 a.m.
Lance has always said he would welcome the opportunity to "prove my innocence and clear my good name."
He was indicted by a federal grand jury eight months ago, along with three of his associates on charges of violating U.S. banking laws in a criminal conspiracy to obtain hundreds of loans totaling more than $20 million.
The indictment alleges that the conspiracy began in 1970, when Lance headed the Calhoun, Ga., First National Bank, and continued in the mid-1970s while he was chairman of the National Bank of Georgia (NBG) in Atlanta. The allegations continue through Lance's nine months as director of the Office of Management and Budget, right up to the day he was indicted. oHe had been forced to resign as head of the OMB Sept. 21, 1977, in the midst of a series of investigations into his financial affairs.
Facing trial with Lance are his former trustee, Thomas M. Mitchell, who handled Lance's business affairs while he was in Washington; Richard T. Carr, a one-time banking associate of Lance; and H. Jackson Mullins, a former Calhoun druggist who allegedly lent his name to a variety of Lance's financial manipulations.
It is not known whether anyone from the administration will appear as a character witness for Lance. During the summer of 1977, when Lance was under fire, President Carter repeatedly affirmed his confidence in Lance's innocence, once saying, "Bert, I'm proud of you."
Even after he was forced to leave the administration, Lance was a familiar figure around Washington, often socializing with high administration officials, and it wasn't until March 1978 that Lance turned in his diplomatic passport. But he has not been seen at the White House by reporters since just before he was indicted.
Lance, a towering figure with a gregarious personality, has kept an uncharacteristically low profile since his departure from Washington.
He still faces masssive debts and mounting legal fees.
Not long after leaving Washington, Lance established a business relationship with the Arab-controlled Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), a London-based institution run by Agha Hasan Abedi, a Pakistani.
In January 1978, Lance sold his stock in National Bank of Georgia to Saudi Arabian businessman Ghaith Pharaon, a close associate of Abedi. At the same time, BCCI gave Lance a $3.6 million loan.
This allowed Lance to pay off the First National Bank of Chicago for an earlier loan secured by the NBG stock. Sources say that Lance still owes several million dollars to BCCI, and no one is sure what he is doing for the London firm.
The only public effort he extended on behalf of BCCI proved to be a public relations bust.
In 1978, Lance fronted for a group of Arab investors seeking control of Financial General Bankshares Inc., a Washington-based bank holding company. The Securities and Exchange Commission filed suit against Lance and the Arab group, charging them with inadequately disclosing their intentions. Soon after, Lance withdrew from the takeover battle and has not been visible connected with any business deal since.
One source who recently visited Lance's office at his farm on the outskirts of Calhoun said the former budget director "traveled all over Europe and Asia dealing in investment opportunities." But Lance has guarded closely the details of his business affairs.
Lance is quick to tell a visitor that he hasn't altered his lifestyle since he lost control of the banks, whose funds, the government alleges, he used as if they were his own.
He still is carrying a lot of expensive real estate -- a big house in downtown Calhoun as well as the farm (with a tennis court and other amenities) outside of town. Then there's the massive "Butterfly Manna," a whitecolumned mansion where he presumably will live in style during the atlanta trial, and the family beach house as Sea Island, an elegant resort on the south Georgia coast.
And Lance's defense team is costly. He retained Clark Clifford's firm for his Washington legal woes, and an attorney from that firm was on hand for Lance's arraignment last May in Atlanta, indicating a continuing interest by the firm in his affairs.
For his criminal defense, Lance hired Nickolas Chilivis, an Atlanta attorney who before this case handled mostly civil litigation. More recently Lance hired former federal prosecutor Henry F. Schuelke III, whose last case was the unsuccessful bribery prosecution of District of Columbia government official Joseph Yeldell and Dominie Antonelli, a businessman.
The defense team has filed a long list of motions in an attempt to derail the prosecution; all the significant motions have been denied by lower court judges. But last week the 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in New Orleans reversed a U.S. District Court judge in Atlanta on a complaint by Lance's lawyers about the grand jury prceeding that led to his indictment.
Lance had charged that justice Department lawyers and members of the grand jury violated the secrecy of the proceedings by disclosing information to the press. He asked for civil contempt sanctions, but the judge who handled the case, Richard Freeman of the U.S. District Court in Atlanta, dismissed the petition without a hearing.
The appeals court in New Orleans held that Freeman either should grant Lance a hearing or should obtain an affidavit from Justice Department lawyers denying any improper conduct.
Freeman is to announce his next move this morning. Meanwhile, Lance's lawyers are seeking to hold up the criminal trial, which is scheduled to get under way an hour later before U.S. District Court Judge Charles A. Moye Jr., on the grounds that the news leaks undermined the grand jury's impartiality.
Moye said he plans to go ahead with the selection of jurors, but will not begin taking testimony until the dispute over the grand jury proceddings is settled.