WARSAW -- Poland, the most fertile breeding ground in Eastern Europe for big-money swindles, has been stung by its fourth banking scandal since communist rule ended here in 1989.
The owner of a new and thriving private bank, which claims $100 million in deposits and is the first to receive permission to sell shares on the Warsaw Stock Exchange, has been unmasked as a confessed tax felon whose extradition is being sought by U.S. authorities.
David Bogatin, 46, who owns 97.5 percent of First Commercial Bank, fled the United States five years ago after pleading guilty to tax evasion charges and promising to pay federal and New York tax authorities nearly $5 million, according to the New York state attorney general's office. That office says Bogatin jumped bail, forfeiting $500,000, before he was due to be sentenced to up to eight years in prison.
"We would like to extradite him," said Nancy Connell, a spokeswoman in Albany for the attorney general's office. "It is hard to imagine he would be running a bank."
Many of First Commercial Bank's 29,000 individual and business depositors also registered shock when the story broke a week ago in Poland's biggest daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. Panic-stricken depositors lined up by the thousands at the 14 branches across Poland. By Wednesday, they had withdrawn about $4.5 million, according to a bank spokesman.
An official with the Polish Ministry of Finance, which cosigns licenses for new private banks, acknowledged wearily that "this case will force us to improve our review procedures for future founders of banks."
What makes Polish financial officials weary is that "economic offenses," which include embezzlement, smuggling and fraud, have become the fastest growing crime category in Poland -- increasing by 8 percent in 1991. Banking scams, in particular, have proved embarrassing to a reformist government trying to attract foreign investment.
Poland's first post-communist bank scam involved the Safe Savings Bank. It was founded by Lech Grobelny, a storefront money-changer who cut deals in central Warsaw over a glass of brandy, but without benefit of shirt or shoes. He promised 180 percent interest on six-month deposits and attracted depositors by the thousands.
Grobelny and his girlfriend skipped Poland in July 1990 with about $3 million in other people's money and have not been heard from since.
Grobelny turned out to be just a warm-up act for more polished schemers, who wore white shirts and ties and made off with hundreds of millions of dollars in 1991.
A private Polish conglomerate called Art-B, for Artistic Business, devised a check-kiting scheme that used a helicopter. Its beauty was that, technically speaking, it was legal. The company's founders discovered that a helicopter could move cash around Poland faster than the antiquated banking system could clear checks. Art-B shuffled about $18 billion through the banking system, picking up an estimated $360 million in interest on money that was in several accounts at the same time. Art-B's founders fled last year to Israel.
Later last year, the chairman of Poland's central bank was hauled off a train and charged with complicity in a scheme to buy back Poland's foreign debt at reduced prices. Somewhere in the financial maneuvering, up to $800 million in government funds disappeared.
"The structural weakness of the state apparatus and financial scandals pose a great internal threat to the security of our state," Interior Minister Antoni Macierewicz said last week.
The emerging scandal at First Commercial Bank demonstrates the minister's concerns. In Poland's freewheeling financial climate, Bogatin has prospered handsomely. Indeed, there are no indications, so far, that he or his bank have violated any Polish law.
Finance Ministry officials say there are no regulations requiring research into the past of foreign nationals wishing to open private banks in Poland. In Bogatin's case, the officials said, no such inquiries were made.
After obtaining a license 10 months ago, Bogatin's bank appears to have thrived by offering depositors above-market interest rates. Annual interest rates of 62 percent were offered -- and still are -- on three-year certificates of deposit. Following last week's disclosures about Bogatin's past, Polish banking regulators are expected to take a close look at the operations of First Commercial.
In the meantime, Bogatin, a Russian-born emigre to the United States who lived in Austria before coming to Poland, is trying to keep his business afloat. At the bank's headquarters in the eastern city of Lublin, he went onto the street to address lines of surly depositors. He promised them a 1 percent rise in interest rates if they left their money in his bank.
A spokesman for First Commercial Bank said Wednesday that the run on the bank had eased and that some people in Lublin were returning their cash to the bank.
In a brief telephone interview, Bogatin denied that he had had any criminal problems in the United States. "Some group of people wants to destroy my business and all that I have attained here," Bogatin complained, adding that there are 1,600 people on his payroll and another 10,000 people involved with him as suppliers and business associates. He said he was helping create jobs in Poland.
Asked about his abrupt departure from the United States in 1987, Bogatin said: "I never escaped the country. I left with my passport like anybody else."
But New York State law enforcement officials say Bogatin was free on bail, awaiting sentences from federal and New York State courts, when he disappeared from New York City. He pleaded guilty on March 11, 1987, to filing false tax returns to evade taxes owed on gasoline distributed by his firm.
Under the headline "Gasoline Bootlegger Pleads Guilty," a three-page press release from the New York Attorney General's office described Bogatin in 1987 as "one of the biggest gasoline bootleggers in the nation."
The release described Bogatin's crimes as an elaborate series of paper transactions designed to evade taxes on 15 million gallons of gasoline purchased and distributed in the New York City area. Bogatin's business was so lucrative, the release says, that after only seven years in the United States, he "spent nearly $6 million to buy five condominium apartments in Manhattan's exclusive Trump Tower."
As part of his plea agreement with New York authorities, Bogatin promised to pay $3 million to state and country governments, as well as $1.75 million to the federal government. To guarantee payment on the tax bills, Bogatin gave the government mortgages on his condos.
"Unfortunately, these apartments turned out to be leveraged so heavily that there was no equity there," said Connell, the spokeswoman in the attorney general's office. She also noted that one of the other New York men indicted with Bogatin, Michael Markowitz, was slain in his car in Brooklyn in 1988, in a mob-style killing. A New York Times article in 1987 quoted the New York attorney general's office as saying that Bogatin had contacts with the Colombo family, a leading force in the New York mafia.
Connell said that Bogatin fled first to Austria, a country that does not have an extradition treaty with the United States for tax crimes.
"Our office has been making inquiries to see what the situation is for Poland," she said. "There is already a Justice Department case against him, so I assume the State Department is doing something."
Poland has an extradition treaty with the United States, and a source at the Justice Ministry here said the Polish government would probably allow Bogatin to be extradited on U.S. tax charges.