The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charles Bowsher, federal auditor during 1980s banking crisis, dies at 91

Charles Bowsher in 2002. (Ray Lustig/The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Charles Bowsher’s position as comptroller general of the General Accounting Office. He was comptroller general of the United States. The article has been corrected.

Charles Bowsher, who used his role as Capitol Hill’s top fiscal watchdog to reveal the full scope of the 1980s savings and loan meltdown, challenging two White House administrations as they tried to hide the full hit to taxpayers in a bailout that would total more than $120 billion, died Sept. 30 at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 91.

Mr. Bowsher’s death was confirmed by his son, Stephen. No cause was given.

Over more than five decades, Mr. Bowsher built a reputation as an accountant called upon in crisis, joining teams that guided New York City back from its brush with bankruptcy in 1975 and probing financial improprieties at the Smithsonian Institution in 2007.

In Washington, as comptroller general of the United States, the chief auditors’ office under congressional control, Mr. Bowsher was thrust into the center of one of the most sweeping upheavals in U.S. banking since the Great Depression. The collapse of the U.S. savings and loan system — caused by a combination of rising interest rates, deregulation and fraud — left thousands of local institutions insolvent as a special federal deposit insurance fund drained away.

The debacle was a political minefield for the Reagan administration, which then handed it off to George H.W. Bush after his election win in 1988. Both tried to cloud the full cost of the looming federal bailouts to go to depositors and to settle markets.

Mr. Bowsher emerged as a reality check, placing the General Accounting Office in the unfamiliar glare of high-stakes politics. In reports and testimony on Capitol Hill, Mr. Bowsher repeatedly described the massive extent of the crisis in U.S. thrifts (think the building and loan in “It’s a Wonderful Life”) and how much it would eventually cost the public.

Mr. Bowsher took particular aim at moves by Congress to weaken oversight of savings and loans, which at the time represented a powerful lobbying bloc.

“This is a huge scandal,” Mr. Bowsher said in 1990, “and to a large extent it was allowed to grow because of the way this town does business.”

In the end, an agency created to sort out the mess closed more than 745 S&Ls, with assets exceeding $400 billion, according to government data. Some distressed property that landed in government hands, such as unfinished condominiums, were burned down rather than put on the market for possible sale. The ultimate cost to taxpayers was as high as $124 billion, with some estimates even higher.

From 1991: A watchdog with a bite

Mr. Bowsher was seen by many as a welcome straight shooter in Washington, even at the risk of angering President Ronald Reagan, who nominated Mr. Bowsher to the 15-year comptroller general post in 1981.

“He was someone who insisted on telling the truth and resisted pressure from those who wanted to help the White House,” said Kathleen Day, a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and a former Washington Post journalist whose 1993 book, “S&L Hell,” detailed the savings and loan crisis and its aftermath.

During his tenure at the GAO (now known as the Government Accountability Office), Mr. Bowsher’s views on government spending and priorities often took on a finger-wagging quality. He told the Senate Government Affairs Committee in 1993 that waste and fraud were so pervasive that “there are hardly any government agencies that are well managed.”

“It’s a shock to hear that,” replied Sen. William V. Roth (R-Del.).

Mr. Bowsher could at times appear in sync with liberals, raising warnings about a U.S. health-care system that leaves millions uninsured. “Universal access to health care is achievable, but the costs are considerable,” he wrote. He also sided strongly with deficit hawks, describing budget imbalances as one of the country’s more serious long-term threats.

Mr. Bowsher’s appeals helped bring landmark legislation, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, designed to eliminate the federal budget deficit by restricting spending for five fiscal years. If deficit targets were exceeded, automatic cuts would kick in, requested by the comptroller general.

A lawsuit, Bowsher v. Synar, brought by Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.) and the National Treasury Employees Union, went to the Supreme Court. In a 7-2 vote in 1986, the court struck down the law, ruling that it gave the comptroller general powers not granted by the Constitution.

“You are talking to an unconstitutional comptroller general,” Mr. Bowsher told the Boston Globe after the ruling.

A Wall Street Journal editorial derided him as “President Bowsher” for his apparent political sway. “Who elected him?” it said.

Charles Arthur Bowsher was born on May 30, 1931, in Elkhart, Ind., a base for his father, an engineer for the New York Central Railroad who ran trains between Elkhart and Chicago.

Mr. Bowsher graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1953 with a degree in accounting. After two years in the Army, he earned his master’s in business at the University of Chicago in 1956, then joined the Chicago office of the Arthur Andersen & Co. accounting firm.

He served from 1967 to 1971 as assistant secretary of the Navy for financial management, afterward returning to an executive post at Arthur Andersen. Among his projects was helping create bookkeeping systems for the 1976 presidential campaigns for both parties. He joined other top accountants in New York to set the city on a course for economic recovery after it nearly declared bankruptcy.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife of 59 years, Mary Mahoney; a daughter, Kathryn Bowsher; and three grandchildren.

Announcing Mr. Bowsher’s nomination as comptroller general in 1981, Reagan said he had “the expertise of an insider with the perspective of an outsider.”

After leaving the comptroller post in 1996, Mr. Bowsher served on the boards of various corporate and philanthropic entities, including the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Washington National Cathedral Foundation, where he served as treasurer and trustee from 1999 to 2003.

In 2007, he was part of panel that issued a blistering report on financial mismanagement in the Smithsonian system, which includes museums, galleries and the National Zoo. He blasted an “imperialist and insular” culture set by the former Smithsonian top official, Lawrence Small, who resigned amid allegations of billing more than $1.1 million in fraudulent housing costs and using funds for lavish personal trips.

Mr. Bowsher also served a behind-the-scenes role advising Natwar Gandhi, the District’s chief financial officer from 2000 to 2013 and a former GAO colleague.

“Whenever an issue came up, [Mr. Bowsher] would be there to help talk it through,” Gandhi said. “He had a great sense of history and a keen sense of public service.”

It was a style that Mr. Bowsher encouraged during his years at the GAO.

“He pushed us to be more than bean-counters,” Gandhi said, “and to become policy advisers.”