Gov. Harry Hughes announced tonight that "the essentials" of the sales of two crippled savings and loans have been worked out and that he will release details of a plan Friday to distribute frozen deposits at a third thrift.
In a five-minute address carried live on Baltimore and Washington television, Hughes said the long-awaited sales of Community Savings & Loan of Bethesda and First Maryland Savings & Loan of Silver Spring are virtually completed.
"The essentials of purchase agreements for both are now concluded," Hughes said. "What remains is final approval from the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. For the past week, I have fought for such approval, meeting with the secretary of the treasury and with the chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board."
Hughes, appearing confident, said the plan designed to free $500 million in deposits frozen in Old Court Savings and Loan of Baltimore, a state-controlled thrift considered unlikely to be sold, will be brought before the General Assembly tomorrow. Liquidation of Old Court, whose problems brought the industry-wide thrift crisis to light in May, "will take several years," said Hughes.
Tonight's speech, the first time in more than a decade that a Maryland governor had requested television time, was in part a political counterattack after several months of public criticism of Hughes' handling of the eight-month crisis.
Much of the criticism has focused on his inaccessibility: his last regular press conference was in October, and he last appeared before the press at a Dec. 13 public meeting of the Board of Estimates.
Hughes would not release details of the potential Community and First Maryland sales, but a source familiar with the discussions said "the negotiations have narrowed down in each case to one very live prospect."
Two sources familiar with the talks said the administration is working hard to overcome federal resistance to the First Maryland sale, which is widely believed to involve Yorkridge-Calvert Savings and Loan Association, a federally insured thrift in Pikesville.
"The feds don't want to weaken Yorkridge-Calvert," said one source. "The governor is having a hard time convincing the feds to blink a little."
Community and First Maryland have been under state conservatorship for several months and are the targets of a criminal investigation by the state attorney general.
Community has been a troubled thrift since its giant EPIC real estate subsidiary collapsed in August. First Maryland was rejected for federal deposit insurance after examiners discovered more than $20 million in bad loans and improper transactions.
The state also is trying to find a buyer for the fourth thrift in conservatorship, Ridgeway Savings and Loan of Catonsville.
Hughes, who recently has come in for sharp criticism from depositors and legislators for repeatedly missing deadlines for revealing plans to resolve the crisis, defended his weeks of reticence. "I imposed this vow of silence for fear that premature leaks would damage or destroy delicate negotiations," he said. "I was willing to talk only when the talking helped -- to keep silent even when the silence hurt."
His decision to break that silence produced varying reactions among lawmakers and depositors who viewed the speech on television in the State House. Marge Hoban, a Greenbelt resident with money frozen in Community, said, "I'd like to congratulate the governor for finally coming before the public. He should have done this before."
John McHale, co-chairman of the Maryland Savings and Loan Depositors' Committee, was skeptical of Hughes' announcements about the pending sales and distribution plans. "We won't believe it until we get the money in our hands," he said.
House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore) and Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg (D-Baltimore County) expressed hope that the agreements the governor mentioned would not result in significant financial losses to the state.
State Sen. Sidney Kramer (D-Montgomery) was more critical, saying, "I was terribly disappointed that the governor didn't say something spectacular. He'd given this speech so much hype and it raised so many expectations, then he popped the balloon. I think his political stock will be completely bankrupt if he doesn't come up with more details tomorrow."
Hughes, speaking hours after Special Counsel Wilbur D. Preston Jr. delivered the findings of his investigation of the industry's collapse, defended his performance throughout what he called "a crisis of enormous and unprecedented proportions."
"We acted immediately," he said. "Legislation was enacted to guarantee the depositors' savings. I directed the attorney general to bring to justice the perpetrators of this fraud. And they are being brought to justice."
Hughes, a likely Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate who has seen his popularity plummet in the months since the runs on Old Court began in May, said resolution of the crisis has become a matter of taxpayer trust in his administration.
"This crisis happened on my watch, and when you sit in this chair, the buck really does stop here," he said. "Resolving this matter has been my responsibility -- and I have accepted it."