Jeffrey Alan Levitt, a principal owner and driving force of the besieged Old Court Savings and Loan association here, is a 200-pound-plus man described by acquaintances as having a big appetite, big heart, big ambitions and an eagerness to take big chances.
A workaholic who reforged his image from slumlord to philanthropist in the last 10 years, Levitt parlayed a modest string of Baltimore inner-city rental properties during the 1970s into a regional multimillion-dollar network of real estate partnerships and the presidency of Old Court, the state's second-largest privately insured savings and loan.
Now he is the center of a controversy over the near collapse of Old Court last week after a run by depositors forced the institution into court-ordered conservatorship.
Just before the run began, Levitt, 42, stepped aside as its chief operating officer and is currently on vacation in Florida and not talking to reporters.
Reports of the management change precipitated the run, which worsened following an announcement by Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs that his office was conducting a criminal investigation of Old Court, which he later described as swimming in a "sea of illegalities."
Controversy is nothing new for Levitt. His career as a Baltimore lawyer and real estate dealer has been peppered with legal confrontations -- housing code convictions, a one-year suspension from the Maryland bar, taxes and an indictment (since overturned and expunged from his record) charging him with filing false information on a liquor license renewal application.
Colleagues describe Levitt as a hard charger and risk taker, a teetotaler and nonsmoker, driver of a Rolls-Royce, generous giver to the community and his synagogue and devoted family man who lives in a spacious, tree-veiled home in suburban Lutherville with his wife, Karol, and two college-age sons.
Friends, most of whom asked not to be quoted by name, said they find it hard to believe Sachs' allegations that Old Court, for example, has made almost $6 million in unsecured note loans to its directors, officers and business entities and that NOW accounts (interest-bearing checking accounts) owned by many of those same people and entities were overdrawn by another $5.7 million as recently as last January.
"I've always found him to be an honest and honorable man," said Michael Yerman, president of Magill-Yerman Better Homes & Gardens, a real estate firm owned in part by Old Court.
"He is very well respected for his opinions in real estate projects," said Baltimore builder Edward R. Oppel, who as president of Oppel Co. has borrowed cash from Old Court. "He had excellent foresight. He could foresee trends."
"I don't believe he did anything wrong," said a Baltimore public relations executive involved in reshaping Levitt's image as a benefactor of worthy causes from cerebral palsy to the Boy Scouts. "He's probably done a thousand things that were borderline . . . but what he did with Old Court, all the S&Ls do it."
During the 1970s, Levitt was prosecuted for hundreds of housing code violations at his low-rent apartment buildings -- "everything from falling plaster to violations dealing with health and sanitation," recalled former city prosecutor Susan B. Tannenbaum.
He was suspended from the practice of law for one year in 1979 and 1980 after the state Court of Appeals upheld a finding that he had lied to Baltimore City Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan about his ownership of a rental property and a related lawsuit.
About the same time, Levitt was indicted in Baltimore County on charges of filing a false liquor license renewal application. A trial judge threw out the case, however, striking down the law on which the charges were based rather than ruling on the merits. The case subsequently was expunged from court records.
More recently, the Baltimore County Office of Finance accused Levitt and one of his limited partnerships of failing to pay a $44,032 transfer tax on the 1983 purchase of a $2.8 million property in the county. On March 26 this year, a judge sided with the county and ordered the tax payment. Levitt has appealed the ruling.
According to court papers filed in his bar suspension case, Levitt decided to sell his inner-city properties in 1975 after a series of articles in the Baltimore Sun newspaper branded him a "slumlord." He suffered "severe physical and mental anguish," the court papers said, and thereafter began divesting himself of the properties.
Several friends and colleagues said this marked a turning point in Levitt's life. He entered into a number of more lucrative and upscale real estate ventures along the Atlantic coast and, with Baltimore real estate lawyer Jerome Cardin and Pennsylvania shoe manufacturer Allen Pearlstein, purchased Old Court S&L in 1983. Levitt owns a 41 percent interest in Old Court; Pearlstein also owns 41 percent, and Cardin 18 percent.
Levitt also became a publicly recognized benefactor in the Baltimore community. He began giving large sums of money to schools, charities and Beth El Congregation, the largest Conservative synagogue in the Baltimore area with 1,200 families. Levitt has been a member of the synagogue since childhood.
"He is a very outgoing, warm person who is extremely generous and quite charitable," said Rabbi Mark G. Loeb at Beth El Congregation.
"He has put himself on a whole new plane by becoming a benefactor," said a lawyer close to Levitt.
For the moment, Levitt has retreated into the background. Represented by attorneys from two blue chip law firms, he is waiting out a criminal investigation of Old Court by the state Attorney General's Office and legislative action by the Maryland General Assembly that could change the savings and loan industry in the state for a long time to come.