Bert Lance, a genial Georgia banker who came to Washington as President Jimmy Carter’s budget director, only to be forced out after less than a year, died Aug. 15 at his home in Calhoun, Ga. He was 82.
A deputy coroner in Gordon County, Ga., confirmed the death to the Associated Press. The cause was not disclosed.
Mr. Lance, who often called himself a “country banker,” was one of the more colorful members of the so-called “Georgia mafia” that arrived in Washington after Carter was elected in 1976.
He had been part of Carter’s inner circle since the 1960s and had reportedly been the first person to recommend that Carter run for president. He was rewarded with the plum post of director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Standing 6-foot-5, the jowly, jovial Mr. Lance made an immediate impression on buttoned-up Washington with his easy affability. He disarmed reporters and lawmakers with his front-porch friendliness and was credited with popularizing the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But some senators and Washington insiders considered Mr. Lance over his head at the OMB. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, opposed Mr. Lance’s nomination, saying, “He has had none — zero, zip, zilch, not one year, not one week, not one day” of experience at managing a federal budget then estimated at $400 billion.
Nonetheless, Mr. Lance was easily approved for the job. He was considered one of Carter’s closest advisers and was even dubbed the “assistant president” by Forbes magazine.
Within months, though, concerns about his personal finances arose. Federal investigators questioned whether Mr. Lance had been forthcoming when his nomination was being considered. Among other things, his bank had issued loans of almost $5 million to Carter’s family peanut business.
Mr. Lance was called a “country slicker” in the press and was suspected of shuffling money around like a blackjack dealer. He had a net worth of almost $3 million — but had more than $5 million in debt. He owned three large houses in Georgia and rented a house in Georgetown. Annual interest payments on his various loans amounted to $370,000; his salary as budget director was $57,500.
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee grilled Mr. Lance over allegations that he had misused bank funds, obtained loans at favorable rates and used a company plane to fly to University of Georgia football games. While he was testifying in Washington, people back in his home town of Calhoun rallied to Mr. Lance’s side, waving signs that read “Don’t Treat Bert Like Dirt.”
Several senators called for his resignation, and under increasing pressure, Mr. Lance resigned in September 1977, less than nine months after taking the top job at the OMB. It was the first major internal scandal of the Carter presidency.
Mr. Lance went back to Georgia, where he was arraigned on federal charges that could have sent him to prison for 95 years for conspiracy, fraud and assorted violations of banking laws.
True to form, the unflappable Mr. Lance bantered with reporters before his trial, saying, “I don’t want anything to happen to you, because I want this same crowd around when I’m found innocent.”
In 1980, he was acquitted of nine of the 12 charges against him. The other three were later dropped.
Before his downfall, Mr. Lance had been expected to run for governor of Georgia and was said to have been on a short list of possible vice presidential candidates. He went on to chair the Georgia Democratic Party in the early 1980s and briefly directed the campaign of Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in 1984, but his aspirations for elective office were ended.
Mr. Lance later came under investigation by a federal grand jury and the Securities and Exchange Commission and resigned as chairman of his small-town bank in 1986 after being charged with “unsafe and unsound” banking practices and misappropriation of funds. He was fined $50,000 and barred by the federal comptroller of the currency from ever working at a bank again.
In 1991, Mr. Lance was indicted for involvement in the scandal surrounding the Bank of Credit and Commerce International but was exonerated. Over the years, Mr. Lance was investigated by no fewer than eight federal agencies, including the Senate, Internal Revenue Service and FBI, but he was never convicted of a crime and never went to jail.
“To this day,” he wrote in a 1992 memoir, “I don’t know what crime I’m accused of committing.”
Thomas Bertram Lance was born June 3, 1931. Reference sources differ on whether he was born in Gainesville, Ga., or Young Harris, Ga. He grew up in Young Harris, where his father was a college president, and Calhoun.
He attended Emory University in Atlanta and the University of Georgia but left before graduating to support his young family. By 1963, he was president of the bank in Calhoun and a growing presence in Georgia politics and business.
“Folks are serious about three things,” he often said. “Their religion, their family and, most of all, their money.”
Mr. Lance met Carter in 1966 and was a fundraiser for Carter’s successful gubernatorial campaign four years later. After directing the state highway department under Carter, Mr. Lance ran for governor in 1974 but lost in the Democratic primary.
In later years, he worked as a consultant and remained friendly with Carter. He developed a close alliance with Jesse Jackson, who told The Washington Post in 1988: “Bert has the capacity to love people. He is able to cross all kinds of lines. He does not have any blocked arteries to his heart.”
Survivors include his wife of 62 years, LaBelle David Lance of Calhoun, and three sons. Another son died in 2006.
In his memoir, “The Truth of the Matter,” written with Bill Gilbert, Mr. Lance said he issued loans on the basis of character rather than collateral. He recalled that one of his first loans was to help a farm woman buy a cow.
When she fell behind in the payments, she brought the cow to town and tied it up outside the bank. She walked into the office and said, “Mr. Lance, I brungCQ you your cow.”
Impressed by her honesty, Mr. Lance gave her more time to pay off the loan.
“Collateral hasn’t repaid a loan yet,” he wrote.