A federal bank examiner's report sharply criticizing the banking practices of Bert Lance, budget director under President Jimmy Carter, triggered speculation today that Lance would be forced to step aside as chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party.
The report to the comptroller of the currency stemmed from an eight-month investigation into "suspected check-kiting schemes and other suspicious transactions," it said, at Calhoun First National Bank, of which Lance is chairman.
The confidential report surfaced when a copy of it was mailed in a plain brown envelope to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. Lance's attorneys unsuccessfully sought a federal court order to restrain its publication.
Lance did not return phone calls today. The bank's lawyers said in a statement that the document was "false and inaccurate in almost every respect."
Citing the forthcoming 1986 elections, Cobb County Democratic Chairman Steve Anthony said Lance cannot remain as state party chairman, "not with the cloud that's hanging over him now."
Anthony is a key adviser to Georgia House Speaker Thomas Murphy who along with other prominent state Democrats has criticized Lance in recent weeks for inattention to party affairs at a time when Republicans are trumpeting the reelection campaign of freshman Sen. Mack Mattingly.
State Sen. Roy Barnes, considered by many the Democrat best able to unseat Mattingly, announced last week that he would not run. Barnes said today that rumors of Lance's new banking problems helped him decide to stay out of the race. The examiner's report was "a matter of concern" to the party, he said.
Lance resigned as Carter's first director of the Office of Management and Budget in 1977, after allegations that he had violated banking laws in Georgia. A year later, he signed a consent agreement not to engage in questionable banking practices.
Congressional hearings arising out of those allegations led to passage of the Federal Institutions Responsibility Act, restricting insider transactions. Lance, later indicted by a federal grand jury, was acquitted of bank-fraud charges.
The examiner's report, according to the published account, alleges that:
Lance recommended that his bank purchase $4.5 million in loans from banks controlled by now-bankrupt Tennessee financiers Jake and C.H. Butcher at a time when Lance had substantial loans from the Butchers' banks. Jake Butcher has been sentenced to prison for federal bank fraud and income tax violations.
Lance and others wrote checks on accounts with insufficient funds.
Credit was extended preferentially to Lance family members.
Cashier's checks were issued without first receiving payment.
Calhoun First's credit life insurance company improperly paid more than $16,000 to a company controlled by Lance.
The old controversy and the new one add up to "too much baggage," one prominent Democrat said. "He should have been gone two months ago." Lance served briefly last year as general manager of Walter F. Mondale's presidential campaign, resigning under pressure from disapproving Democrats.
State Sen. Julian Bond (D-Atlanta) said that even if Lance is vindicated, "I think he's going to be real busy with this stuff. He would hurt the Democrats' chances against Mattingly . . . just because the chairman of the party can't give full time to fighting charges like this and full time to a campaign."
Democrat John Russell of Winder, the only announced Mattingly opponent to have held public office, said he also is worried about Lance's time.
"If any of this is true, it would not be proper for a person to be chairman. But Bert's been hauled into court before, and they were serious charges at that time. I think they basically showed he was guilty of sloppy but not illegal practices."
A group of Democratic county chairmen had scheduled a meeting Thursday with Lance but it was canceled. They and some members of the state Democratic Executive Committee have criticized Lance and Democratic Gov. Joe Frank Harris for adopting a hands-off stance toward the Mattingly campaign.
Harris said in a statement today that he was "assessing the Lance situation and its impact on the party." He cautioned that "Bert Lance hasn't been charged, tried or convicted of a criminal violation of law . . . . Nevertheless, I am deeply distressed about [the report's] implications."