Federal regulators looking into the cause of the Ohio financial panic charged yesterday that an independent auditor was paid $125,000 to cover up the financial troubles of a Florida company whose collapse triggered the crisis.
Auditor Jose Gomez received three cash payments last year from officers of E.S.M. Government Securities Inc., of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the Securities and Exchange Commission said in a civil complaint filed in Miami.
Gomez was managing partner in charge of auditing E.S.M. for Alexander Grant & Co., a public accounting firm. The SEC said Grant issued "false and misleading" financial reports showing E.S.M. was financially sound and making a profit.
In fact, the company had lost $300 million over the past several years and was broke, federal investigators said. When E.S.M. collapsed last week, it took some of its customers down with it. Failure of the government securities trading firm wiped out Home State Savings and Loan of Cincinnati, panicked depositors of other Ohio savings associations and forced the largest bank closing since the Depression.
After yesterday's court hearing on the charges against the auditor, federal trustee Thomas Tew called the E.S.M. collapse "probably one of the most colossal and tragic frauds we've seen, because of its effect on Ohio -- that alone sets it apart from other cases."
State and federal regulators yesterday completed work on a plan to reopen some of the 70 state-insured Ohio savings associations that have been closed since last Friday.
The charges against the E.S.M. auditors came as teams of investigators from the SEC and FBI sifted through the records of the collapsed firm. Their goal is to determine how an obscure government bond dealer in Florida could set off a multistate financial crisis requiring a rescue mission led by the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.
Congress will ask some of the same questions April 3 at a hearing scheduled yesterday by the House commerce consumer and monetary affairs subcommittee. The subcommittee is a panel of the House Government Operations Committee, whose chairman, Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), is from Beaumont, Tex., one of the cities that lost millions of dollars when E.S.M. went under.
Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.), whose district includes E.S.M.'s headquarters, said yesterday he will introduce legislation to give the SEC greater authority over government securities dealers like E.S.M. Washington area governments appear to have protected themselves against the type of losses suffered by a number of municipalities around the country in the E.S.M. failure. Story on Page B1.
The city of Toledo, another losing investor in E.S.M., filed a $58 million lawsuit Tuesday against Alexander Grant, and federal trustee Tew has said he will try to make the auditors repay the $300 million lost by E.S.M. customers.
Alexander Grant officials issued a statement saying Gomez is "no longer a partner" and said the company is investigating its own handling of the E.S.M. account.
The SEC complaint against Gomez said he had audited E.S.M. records for several years and was called in last November for a special audit after the death of Alan Novick, the man regarded by federal investigators as the mastermind of the fraud. Six days after the audit, the SEC charged, former E.S.M. president Ronnie Ewton transferred $50,000 from his personal bank account to Gomez's account. The following day, E.S.M. Vice President George Mead shifted $50,000 from his account to Gomez. Both Ewton and Mead used company funds to make the payments, the SEC said.
SEC investigators, who have been on the case less than a week, said Gomez got another $10,000 from Novick last August and was paid $15,000 by Ewton in September. After that time, at least two reports saying E.S.M. was healthy were issued by Alexander Grant as the firm's independent auditor.
"Gomez knew he was not an independent auditor, that he had taken money from the principals of the firm, knew that E.S.M. clients relied on those financial statements. By taking the money, he participated in a fraud," said SEC attorney Bernard J. Barrett Jr.
A federal judge issued an order freezing Gomez's assets, ordering him to account for any funds he received from E.S.M. since 1977.