Federal regulators yesterday took action to collect $24 million from a politically prominent former California savings and loan executive who allegedly squandered depositors' money on such personal expenses as corporate jets, three vacation condominiums, a $3 million bonus, wine-tasting classes and Uzi submachine guns.
Civil charges of violating banking regulations were filed by the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) against Thomas Spiegel, the deposed chief executive of Columbia Savings and Loan of Beverly Hills, an almost insolvent association that had been the biggest buyer of risky, high-yield junk bonds in the thrift industry.
For years, Spiegel and Columbia were key participants in what became known as the junk bond "network" of former Drexel Burnham Lambert financier Michael Milken, who has pleaded guilty to securities fraud charges.
The OTS complaint dealt with alleged abuse of S&L funds by Spiegel, but investigations into possible securities law violations and illegal campaign contributions involving Spiegel are being pursued by the OTS, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI, according to government officials and other sources.
The OTS complaint charged that Columbia paid for a $1 million Idaho ski condo used exclusively by Spiegel, Milken and Milken's brother Lowell. The government also charged that Columbia depositors' funds were improperly given to a charitable foundation controlled by Spiegel that invested the money in Drexel junk bonds and several other S&Ls that are targets of federal probes.
The demand that Spiegel repay $23,984,000 represents the largest such case brought against a savings and loan executive. It is the most visible action taken against alleged S&L abuse by the Bush administration under a campaign launched last month by the president and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.
Democrats in Congress have criticized the administration for moving too slowly against S&L wrongdoers, a politically explosive issue given the burgeoning cost of the S&L scandal, which is projected to cost every American at least $2,000.
Spiegel issued a statement yesterday saying he "forcefully denied all the charges" and "expressed outrage" at what he called "trial by press release."
"For purely political reasons," Spiegel said, "OTS is seeking scapegoats to divert public attention from its gross incompetence."
Spiegel's political connections extended across party lines.
Contribution records show Columbia's foundation gave thousands of dollars to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and the Garn Institute, named for Sen. Jake Garn of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee.
Financial favors from Spiegel led to the resignation last year of House Democratic Whip Tony Coehlo of California. A longtime Democratic fundraiser and rising power in the party, Coehlo gave up his seat after The Washington Post revealed Spiegel had lent Coehlo money to participate in a lucrative junk bond investment.
OTS Director Timothy Ryan said the charges brought yesterday against Spiegel deal only with his alleged abuse of Columbia funds for personal expenses and not with any political contributions.
Other sources said political contributions by Columbia and Spiegel are one of many targets still being investigated by OTS and other government agencies.
Last December, regulators forced Spiegel out of his post at Columbia, which for many years had made him the highest paid executive in the thrift industry. Spiegel was paid $9 million in salary and bonuses in 1985, part of $22 million he collected over a four-year period.
Though the value of Spiegel's investment in Columbia stock has been virtually wiped out by the thrift's losses, OTS officials said they have reason to believe his personal wealth can cover the $24 million in restitution they are seeking.
The government is asking for a court order to freeze Spiegel's assets and make him immediately establish an escrow account with cash or other assets for the full amount the government wants.
Since Spiegel resigned under pressure, new managers operating with what Ryan described as "federal monitoring" have been struggling to save the big thrift. Columbia has been driven to the brink of failure by the loss of $1 billion on its risky junk bond investments, which once were worth $3.9 billion.
Though Spiegel blames the losses on government regulations meant to force thrifts out of the junk bond business, the thrift's new president, Edward Harshfield, has said 97 percent of the losses were due to bad investments by Spiegel.
Harshfield and Columbia's new management team have been working closely with federal regulators and turned up many of Spiegel's alleged abuses through an internal investigation.
Milken figured prominently in the charges brought against Spiegel yesterday. Senior OTS enforcement attorney Joan Nichols said Spiegel and Michael and Lowell Milken had the exclusive use of a luxurious condo in a ski development in Park City, Utah.
The complaint demands that Spiegel give back $1,095,000 for "unjust personal enrichment" from use of that vacation hideaway and two other resort condos in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Indian Wells, Calif.
The government also demanded $6.4 million from Spiegel for using Columbia funds to pay for three private jets that were owned in partnership with Drexel and Milken. In one case, Spiegel allegedly flew to Paris by commercial airliner, then called for the Columbia jet to fly him to Switzerland, costing the S&L $250,000. Spiegel has said the plane came to Europe on other business, not just to ferry him a few hundred miles.
OTS General Counsel Harris Weinstein said the agency is still investigating "the linkage between Drexel Burnham Lambert, the Milkens, Columbia and other thrifts" to the Columbia Savings Charitable Foundation, which is controlled by Spiegel. Beside serving as a vehicle for contributions to causes with political connections, the foundation invested in Drexel junk bonds and owned part of several other S&Ls.
Charging that the S&L improperly gave $2,366,000 to the foundation, the OTS demanded the money be repaid to Columbia and that an independent board be appointed to run the charity free of Spiegel's influence.
The federal investigation, Nichols said, has found that multimillionaire Spiegel received free use of a Mercedes-Benz 560 SEL two-seater and a rare British Bentley from California luxury car dealer Howard Schneider. Spiegel allegedly got free use of the cars at the time Schneider was negotiating for $28 million in loans from Columbia at below-market interest rates. Columbia has lost $5.7 million on those loans already and is expected to lose more, the government charged.
Along with $2,000 in French wine-tasting classes for Spiegel and his wife and $7,000 worth of tickets to concerts by Michael Jackson and other rock stars, OTS officials cited what they called the most bizarre example of his alleged personal use of corporate money.
About $100,000 was used to buy at least 55 guns -- a few of them found at Columbia facilities, some in Spiegel's possession and several unaccounted for.
Investigators said the arsenal included shotguns that were used for skeet shooting on corporate retreats as well as dozens of pistols, several powerful .357 magnum handguns and at "at least two" Uzi submachine guns.