House Speaker Vernal Riffe Jr., a wily country boy who has ruled the legislature here for a decade, shunned the news conferences and ribbon cuttings that marked the official end to the state's crippling savings and loan crisis. And these days he avoids rehashing the past. "Crisis? What S&L crisis?" Riffe asked incredulously in the state capital several days ago. "That's over. It's history."
But history dies hard when it has threatened people's life savings and shaken their beliefs, as Frank Gordon, a retired detective in Cincinnati, is quick to say. Gordon could not wait to pull his $10,000 out of the troubled savings and loan that started the Ohio panic in March, even though the institution opened under a new owner -- and with federal insurance -- on June 14.
"Even that building has a stigma attached," he sputtered as he pointed to a neat little neighborhood office that once was the headquarters of Home State Savings Bank. "See anybody go in or out of there? No, and you won't. People will never forget."
In essence, Riffe and Gordon are both right.
Ohio has emerged -- triumphantly, many say -- from the crisis that made nationwide news when Gov. Richard F. Celeste shut down 70 state-chartered savings and loans March 15 in a move reminiscent of the Depression-era bank closings ordered by President Roosevelt. All but four of the Ohio institutions are open for business today, with stickers proclaiming that they are backed by federal insurance. None of their depositors has lost a dime, and state officials say the institutions are stronger than ever. Most business persons and lawmakers agree that there has been little adverse impact from what could have been a devastating blow to the state's entire economy.
But if Ohio has survived, it has survived at a cost -- as much as $120 million to the state treasury, potential damage to Celeste and fellow Democrats, and a loss of financial independence to New York banks, which gained a foothold there during the crisis. There is also the cost to the psyches of Ohio residents, who now speak darkly of trusting neither financial institutions nor government.
"What else can you depend on, if you can't depend on the federal government?" said Dorothy Butcher, a 52-year-old cashier from Columbus. "Of course, that's what I thought about the state government before all this."
That shaken faith and the memory of closed Ohio thrift associations may have been on the minds of Maryland depositors in May when news reports of alleged improprieties at Old Court Savings and Loan Association of Baltimore triggered a run on deposits. That sparked Maryland's crisis, which one Ohio lawmaker called "a piece of the Ohio ulcer." The institutions involved in the two states had at least two things in common: they were state-chartered and backed by private insurance funds.
Indeed, when Celeste was wrestling with his shutdown decision in Ohio, he called Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, whose state was one of the other five in the nation with private insurance funds. In the rest of the states, virtually all thrifts are protected by federal insurance. Celeste recalled in an interview last week that he told Hughes, "I don't know what the consequences may be here, let alone in your state. But I really think it's something that could well extend beyond Ohio."
In Ohio, the panic began when Home State Savings Bank of Cincinnati was decimated by enormous losses as a result of its dealings with a Florida securities dealer that collapsed amid charges of fraud. Home State's losses appeared ready to overwhelm the private fund that backed the deposits at 70 state-chartered thrifts with nearly $5 billion in assets.
Nervous Ohioans started a run on deposits at several of Home State's 33 branches, and on March 6, armored trucks began to roll out of the massive steel doors of the local Federal Reserve Bank, hauling bags of cash to meet the sudden demand. The Home State lines grew.
Just before dawn on March 15, Celeste made his historic decision to declare a "bank holiday," closing all 70 state-chartered thrifts. Had he closed some, rather than all of them, he feared, he "would invite the runs to move to other institutions," he said last week. "There was a crisis in confidence, and confidence is really more precious than cash for these institutions, and more precarious."
Within a week, the legislature passed an emergency banking bill that made sweeping changes in the Ohio thrift industry. It, in essence, did away with the private insurance fund and required that thrifts have federal insurance -- with its more stringent requirements -- to reopen.
Some reopened within days, and by the end of July, according to state officials, the vast majority of the thrifts -- including the beleaguered Home State, under a new owner and a new name and with the infusion of more than $90 million in state funds -- were back in business.
But in Maryland, where the panic began May 8, the crisis is still lingering. New lines of depositors, fed Friday by fresh revelations of trouble, formed at one suburban Washington thrift during the weekend.
At the beginning, Maryland was spared a full-scale "bank holiday," but the governor did order a $1,000-a-month limit on withdrawals from any account at the 102 state-chartered thrifts. Now, three months later, that order is still tying up deposits at 23 thrifts, including some of the state's largest.
Twenty-one institutions have obtained federal insurance, but not all are required to do so immediately. The legislature set up a new state insurance fund that will be phased out as thrifts obtain U.S. insurance.
Old Court, the institution that started it all, is still under state conservatorship with no end in sight. Depositors cannot touch a penny of their money, though Hughes and the General Assembly have guaranteed, with taxpayers' funds, all Old Court accounts up to $100,000. That decision could ultimately prove costly.
Ohio state Sen. Richard Finan, a key architect of the thrift bailout plan there, said Maryland might take a lesson from Ohio. The crisis "does not get better with age," he said. "It's not like wine. It's more like a dead body. It stinks, and it could affect the overall state economy."
Finan, a Republican who represents the city where the panic began, said he will never forget "the sheer furor of the Home State depositors. It brings home again the fact that you think you are a civilized society, but take somebody's money away and just see how long they stay civilized. That's still true, and I think about it."
State regulators surveying their 70 thrift institutions learned that Home State was not alone in its problems. "The idea was that there was one bad guy, but that's not true," said Robert McAlister, the lawyer tapped by Celeste to act as superintendent of savings and loans for 120 days during the crisis. "I was shocked by the amount of internal misdealing at several institutions."
McAlister has referred those cases to a special prosecutor conducting an investigation of Home State. Meanwhile, through mergers and acquisitions for thrifts that could not make it on their own, he has gotten the majority of them open.
McAlister found that huge New York banks were itching to get a foothold in Ohio, and with the crisis as an impetus, interstate banking was suddenly a reality in Ohio. One giant, Chase Manhattan, which is negotiating similar deals in Maryland, picked up six Ohio thrifts that it has converted into full-service, commercial banks.
Local bankers were about as excited by that as "Montgomery Ward would be to see Sears move in across the street," said Oliver Waddell, chairman of First National Bank of Cincinnati, whose high-rise, marble headquarters now looks down on a Chase office across Walnut Street. But Waddell added, "Ohio is blessed with strong banks. Ohio has no reason to be worried."
Still, the Ohio treasury is poorer for the crisis. The state used $90 million in liquor profits to come up with funds to attract a buyer and bail out Home State. It pledged $30 million from other sources.
Before the bailout bill was passed, the state Republican Party polled voters and found about 73 percent opposed to using taxpayers' funds in the effort. But Democrats insist that the situation was akin to giving state aid to Ohio tornado victims. "The community was in a state of emergency," said Democratic political consultant Jerry Austin.
As to the depositors in troubled Home State, some turned lobbyist during the crisis and, in the words of Mark Stachler of Dayton, got "a crash course in banking and politics." Stachler, a Republican who detested Democrat Celeste to begin with, said he earned a "sense of respect for him as an individual" during 76 trips to the state capital. After a protracted legislative battle, Home State was sold to another Ohio institution, Hunter Savings Association, and depositors got access to every penny of their funds.
Despite the happy ending, Stachler was left with a nagging concern. "I still have questions as to how this ever happened in the first place," said Stachler, who wants to know why state regulators did not stop the practices that led to Home State's collapse. "It makes you wonder: Are other state departments equally as mismanaged?"
The crisis had yet another legacy: criminal investigations by a special prosecutor and federal prosecutors and multimillion-dollar civil lawsuits against Home State's owner and others. An inquiry by a joint legislative committee has turned up testimony that state examiners warned their superiors as far back as 1981 that they should halt Home State's investment in risky deals with Florida-based ESM Government Securities -- deals that ultimately led to Home State's collapse.
If that is not enough to keep the S&L crisis alive in Ohio, some politicians will do the rest. Four-time Republican governor James A. Rhodes, who has made a career of knocking off incumbents, has come out of retirement and is crisscrossing the state saying that Celeste mishandled the crisis and that Rhodes is the man to replace him.
Robert Hughes, the GOP county chairman from the Cleveland area, said that the investigations "are a ticking time bomb" for Celeste. Hughes calls it "Warnergate," alluding to the close friendship between Celeste and Home State's owner, Marvin Warner, Celeste's chief fund-raiser in the 1982 campaign.
And Republican state Sen. Stanley Aronoff is concerned that the crisis may have added "to the impression that Ohio is not a good state to do business in."
Celeste believes that the handling of the crisis turned out to be a business plus. "It showed a capacity for Ohio to meet a crisis head-on, to respond in a bipartisan fashion and be effective with coming up with a solution to protect private economic institutions." As to the 1986 election, the governor, now in his first term, is taking the high road. "There'll be a lot of posturing going on . . . but most of the people will make a judgment based on the outcome," he said. "My own feeling is the outcome speaks for itself."
But in tiny DeGraff, Ohio, 60 miles northwest of the state capital, they are still waiting for an ending. People's Building and Loan is shuttered, as it has been since July 5, when the state superintendent took it over, promising residents that a buyer would be found. "Gov. Celeste goes on TV saying, 'Ohio is healed,' but what about us?" asked Gary Reeder, a former People's officer.
And Don Oswald, who runs DeGraff Variety across from the small thrift, said he will never feel that his money is safe anywhere. "If everybody wanted their money out, there is not enough insurance anywhere to cover it," he said. "Maybe it's just as well to keep it buried in the back yard or under your mattress."