Squeezed in S&L vise Integrity: James Fisher was an academic who never thought to question the practices of Baltimore Federal Financial when he was on its board. Then the industry collapsed, and the government went for his throat and his wallet.

December 15, 1996|By Bill Atkinson | Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

The wind blew through Jim Fisher's hair as he knelt on the deck of his trawler, the Vera Brant, sanding and varnishing its teak when he was interrupted by the beep of the cellular telephone.

On the other end that morning -- Feb. 9, 1992 -- was his assistant, Mary Ann Rice. Her voice was agitated as she explained that the government had just filed a lawsuit against him.

The Resolution Trust Corp. -- created two years earlier to clean up the nation's exploding savings and loan -- was seeking $32 million from Fisher and nine other officers and former board members of Baltimore Federal Financial, accusing them of causing the loss of tens of millions of dollars and the collapse of the thrift.

The news stunned Fisher. But the lawsuit simply certified troubles that had begun two months earlier for the 61-year-old educator of exemplary reputation.

For seven years Fisher had enjoyed a life of status and ease as a noted author and consultant after serving as president of Towson State College, briefly running for governor of Maryland and heading an international organization to promote higher education.

But a four-year nightmare had begun.

Neither government attorneys nor the other officers of Baltimore Federal would comment for this article. But dozens of interviews over six months -- with Fisher, members of his family, friends, federal officials and industry experts -- and an examination of documents and notes of meetings and conversations reveal two distinct but interwoven tales.

The first is how Fisher was swallowed into the deepest crisis of his life -- one that would cost him his marriage and pit this patriotic stalwart against the most unlikely of foes: the federal government.

The other shows how ill-equipped Fisher was to be a member of the board of directors of the thrift, how casually business was sometimes conducted and why the federal government was so zealous in its prosecution.

The first signs of trouble had come two months earlier.

James Lee Fisher began the morning with a comfortable routine. He pulled himself out of bed at 7 and threw on a sweat suit, grabbed a piece of toast that he washed down with coffee from his favorite Marine Corps mug, then took a three-mile walk

through his McLean, Va., neighborhood with Tracker, his yellow English lab.

After a simple breakfast of cold cereal and fruit, Fisher settled into a hunter-green leather chair behind an antique oak desk in his library -- Tracker curled in a ball at his feet.

The routine had been the same for six years, ever since his heart attack.

From his library, he wrote his scholarly books and served universities as a consultant, advising them on candidates for president and on ways to resolve conflicts between boards of trustees and top administrators. On this particular morning -- Dec. 2, 1991 -- he prepared to undertake his first chore: the morning mail. Rice had already tossed the junk mail and slit open the other envelopes, placing them in a neat stack on his desk.

Fisher flipped through the letters -- a note from a college president. Another from a doctoral student. A letter from his publisher, inquiring how his latest book was coming.

And a terse, three-paragraph note from the Resolution Trust Corp.

It came quickly to the point: "Enclosed are two subpoenas, one requiring you to produce documents, the other requiring you to give testimony."

He was ordered to appear for a deposition at the offices of a Washington law firm.

Fisher knew only generally what this was about. The RTC had been created only two years earlier to clean up the S&L crisis sweeping across the country. Congress had given it vast powers to punish officers who had violated laws and squandered depositors' money.

No worries

But Fisher wasn't worried. He had resigned from Baltimore Federal 30 months earlier. He had an impeccable reputation.

And besides, he told himself, he'd done nothing wrong and performed his board duties capably -- even though the thrift had failed, like so many others.

But none of that would matter.

After studying the letter from the RTC, he telephoned his son, Kerry, a former assistant state's attorney for the city of Baltimore and a 38-year-old lawyer for Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.; and his close friend and confidant, Robert A. DiCicco, a lawyer in Towson whom he had first met while president of the college.

Kerry Fisher and DiCicco were anxious. They knew depositions could be rough, and they were aware of the RTC's no-nonsense reputation. They advised Fisher to hire an attorney.

But Fisher objected.

"I don't take it seriously," he told them. "I can't believe they will find anything irregular about my conduct or the conduct of any other officer."

His son finally insisted that he at least attend the deposition with his father.

The night before the deposition, Fisher's wife, Joan, was nervous, but he slept well, confident that he'd be asked few questions, then be on his way.

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