White-collar crimes, not poor economic conditions or deregulation, are the root cause of the savings and loan crisis, congressional auditors said.
The General Accounting Office told the House Judiciary Committee's criminal justice subcommittee Wednesday that it had examined 26 insolvent thrift insitutions in eight states and found evidence of fraud or abusive insider dealing in each.While the survey was skewed to S&Ls with the worst problems - the 26 represented 60 percent of total losses sustained by the government's insurance fund from 1985 through 1987 - the pattern of fraud and abuse among all failed thrifts "clearly is pervasive," GAO officials said.
"The huge losses which will ultimately be passed to the nation's taxpayers," estimated at $100 billion to $150 billion, "did not come about primarily because of economic conditions or deregulation," Assistant GAO Comptroller General Frederick Wolf told the subcommittee.
"The bulk of the losses are directly attributable to the failure by management of a minority of the industry to follow basic, prudent business practices, including the establishment of effective systems of internal control," Wolf said.
Asked if that is a crime, Wolf said violation of fiduciary responsibilities to operate in a sound manner is clearly a criminal issue.
The GAO said it found inadequate records and controls at all 26 of the failed thrifts it examined in detail, excessive loans to one borrower at 23 of them, conflicts of interest among officers or directors at 20 and excessive salaries and benefits at 17.
The subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., complained that of the 11,000 S&L cases the Federal Home Loan Bank Board has referred to the Justice Department in the last two years for criminal prosecution, less than 200 have resulted in convictions.
"Ten billion dollars would go a long way to housing the homeless, feeding the poor, educating the public, caring for the sick," Schumer said. "Instead it has been wasted on lavish parties jets, real estate, travel and meals at the expense of taxpayers."
Attorney General Dick Thornburgh last month blamed fraud and insider abuses for 25 percent to 30 percent of the S&L failures. Industry regulators said they have found the crimes a "factor" in at least 70 percent of insolvent institutions.
Of the 26 failed thrifts examined by the GAO, the bank board had referred 19 of them and allegations against 182 people to the Justice Department for suspected violations of criminal conspiracy, theft, fraud and embezzlement statutes.
As of this month, Wolf said, 23 of those people had been convicted - at least 11 after pleading guilty - and 19 more were under indictment. Two people were acquitted in trials.
Of those convicted, 15 were sentenced to prision, but the sentences "generally were suspended with probation," Wolfe said.
At a separate hearing, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan said his agency is working closely with the Treasury Department to develop a detailed plan for handling the billions of dollars in real estate the government will inherit from failed S&Ls.
Greenspan, who would be a member of the oversight board of the government entity set up to dispose of the real estate, declined to provide details of the plan to a House Banking subcommittee.
Some members of Congress fear government "dumping" of S&L property at "fire-sale" prices will ruin regional real estate markets, particularly in the Southwest.
Treasury and White House officials are considering a proposal developed by R.T. McNamar, a California investment banker and a former deputy Treasury secretary, that would use state and federal funds for holding onto foreclosed real estate for as long as 10 or 15 years.