Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes said tonight he may remove his $1,000 limit on withdrawals from as many as 13 small savings and loan associations tomorrow. He also strongly suggested he will exempt payroll and escrow accounts from the limitation he imposed a week ago on depositors at all 102 state-chartered thrifts, following a run on savings and loans around the state.
Hughes said the 13 institutions to be exempted from the limitation are "very sound" associations insured by the state, who do not qualify for federal insurance because of their operating structure.
The governor is expected to specify which hardship cases he will exempt from his $1,000 limit when the legislature reconvenes Tuesday. He said that escrow and payroll accounts are "very good candidates," particularly escrow accounts that involve "real estate settlements when there is a loan commitment." It is estimated that about 1 million S&L accounts have been affected by the limitation.
Speaking to reporters, Hughes also said he would support additional legislation giving the attorney general the power to grant immunity to witnesses in investigation of savings and loan cases.
"It should be granted in this instance," Hughes said of the investigative tool that two lawmakers sought in legislation they introduced Friday. The lawmakers enacted seven emergency bills on Friday giving the state broad powers to cope with the crisis and forcing state-chartered thrifts into either federal or state insurance plans.
Earlier today, administration spokesmen and the presiding officers of the House of Delegates and Senate expressed reservations about legislation that originally sought a range of new criminal penalties and investigative tools.
"The question is," said Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg (D-Baltimore County), "are the specific powers necessary on an emergency basis at this time?"
Later, however, Steinberg said the narrow concept endorsed by Hughes "would be the way to do it. That's heading in the right direction."
The legislation introduced Friday would grant the state attorney general subpoena power in investigating possible wrongdoing at savings and loan institutions, and the authority to give immunity to witnesses in exchange for their cooperation before grand juries, as well as increase criminal penalties for such crimes as fraud and misappropriation of funds.
"These are important prosecutorial tools that federal authorities already have and that state prosecutors already have for narcotics and gambling cases," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's), a cosponsor of the bill. "Certainly the crimes that are alleged in this instance at Old Court Savings and Loan in Baltimore are just as serious and just as deserving of emergency action by the legislature. To do otherwise would send a terrible signal to the public."
But House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore) said that even with a more narrowly defined bill, the legal requirement to hold hearings on the legislation might force the assembly to go beyond a one-day session Tuesday, a possibility the leadership is anxious to avoid.
The legislature will be asked Tuesday to enact two measures correcting oversights in the seven bills signed by Hughes early Saturday. One deals with the governor's emergency powers, and one clarifies how thrifts may withdraw their funds from the defunct Maryland Savings Share Insurance Corporation, the private insurance corporation that has been replaced by a new state insurance agency.
Cardin and Steinberg said the legislature will not grapple with another, more controversial piece of legislation introduced Friday that would enable savings and loans to convert to commercial banks and permit large out-of-state banks to acuire Maryland thrifts and establish full banking services in the state.
"The only way we would consider that would be if there is a serious offer to buy one of the ailing savings and loans," Cardin said.
Legislative leaders and administration spokesmen said a number of both in-state and out-of-state financial institutions continue to express interest in purchasing Old Court and Merritt. However, one source familiar with the talks suggested a more likely possibility is for one of the state's healthier savings and loans to take over the mangement of Old Court with an option to purchase it outright later. The source said John Hanson Savings and Loan, based in Prince George's County, is pursuing that course.
Maryland officials, who last week were actively courting big out-of-state banks as potential purchasers of troubled Maryland institutions, now have backed off, bankers said.
But one key New York banker said that Maryland officials will have to come back to the big out-of-state banks unless the state is willing to swallow huge losses to compensate depositors in several of the state-insured institutions.
Part of the difficulty Maryland officials face is trying to put a value on the assets owned by a number of such institutions, such as Old Court and Merritt.
Unlike traditional savings and loan associations, whose assets were principally residential mortgages, several of the fastest-growing state-insured savings and loans invested heavily in development projects and commercial loans. The value of their assets is far harder to determine. Further, those assets are far harder to sell than home mortgages.
A number of major banks, including New York's Chase Manhattan and Chemical, have said they are interested in buying some of the Maryland savings and loan associations and converting their charters to commercial banks. But industry sources said the banks are not willing to pay exorbitant premiums to be able to do business in Maryland.
In Ohio, where a similar crisis struck last March, Chemical Bank said it was willing to buy Home State Savings Bank -- whose massive losses touched off a panic in Ohio. But after Chemical got a good look at Home State's assets, it said it would need $125 million of state assistance to take over Home State and reopen it as a commercial bank.
On May 9, the Ohio legislature voted $91.3 million in assistance. The Ohio House voted to increase the aid to Chemical, but the Senate refused last Friday. After weekend protests from depositors -- who have had limited access to their accounts for more than two months -- the Senate decided to reconsider its decision today.
Hughes, who has devoted virtually all his time to the savings and loan crisis since abruptly returning from a Mideast trip a week ago, continued to meet nonstop on the issue today, as regulators, attorneys and staff members coped with the aftermath of Friday's legislative session and the effort to return the thrift industry to normal operations.
"We're waiting for the accountants and lawyers to tell us what to do," Hughes' press aide Lou Panos said this afternoon as reporters clamored for news.
Also today, three additional thrifts -- Sykesville Building Association of Carroll County, Western Permanent Savings and Loan and Glen Burnie Savings and Loan -- received conditional approval from the federal Home Loan Bank Board for FSLIC insurance. Eight others received conditional approval Sunday, and a ninth, Chevy Chase, received it last week.
It was unclear why the legislative leadership was initially reluctant to take up the bill giving additional prosecutorial powers to law enforcement agencies, but the resistance of a key House committee chairman may have been a factor.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery), whose panel killed proposals to grant the attorney general the power to grant immunity to witnesses several years ago, suggested there is no urgent need for the bill despite the savings and loan crisis.
"We had a run on a savings and loan," said Owens. "I don't know how much of that was created by a particular S&L. We don't know just how bad they are."