Swindler loses bid for release from prison But judge may reduce former S&L exec.'s term

September 06, 1997|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Claiming to be a "changed man" and teaching courses in finance to his fellow inmates, Maryland savings and loan swindler Tom J. Billman asked a federal judge yesterday to release him from prison after serving only four years of his 40-year sentence for stealing $22 million.

Chief U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz rejected the request for immediate release, but may shave several years off Billman's sentence in a hearing next month. Prosecutors didn't object to a modest reduction for Billman, 57, saying there is no need to keep him in prison "until he is a doddering old man."

But the prosecutors said Billman -- who lived a lavish life as a fugitive in Brazil, Argentina, Spain and France -- is still a cunning con man who they believe has money hidden. Since he was sentenced to prison in 1994, prosecutors have found more than $7 million in stolen money Billman had tried to hide in Austria, court papers said.

"It would be amazing to think that the government and the Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund [MDIF] have stumbled upon every penny that Mr. Billman had," said Assistant State's Attorney Joyce K. McDonald. "Mr. Billman is a very clever man. I think he is still trying to hide assets."

Billman's prison sentence was one of the longest in the country for a white-collar offender. Prosecutors cited his egregious thefts and gaudy lifestyle with his stolen money, which he used to buy two yachts while sunning as a fugitive on Spain's Costa del Sol.

McDonald noted that it was prosecutors and the MDIF that tracked down $22 million Billman stole in the 1980s from Bethesda-based Community Savings and Loan, where he had been an executive. Billman didn't cooperate in identifying the money, McDonald said.

She also cited notes seized from Billman's apartment in Paris upon his capture in March 1993 that suggested he was devising elaborate steps to hide valuables. Billman wrote the notes while traveling under a British passport in the name of John Rink, an alias.

"These notes are replete with the sentiment that it is very easy to hide assets," McDonald said. She noted in court papers that the interest on the $22 million Billman once wired to secret Swiss bank accounts would have amounted to millions of dollars that have never been accounted for.

But Billman's attorney, E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., said at the hearing yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that Billman has changed since being imprisoned.

"It's a different type of Tom Billman. The past 4 1/2 years in prison have had a significant effect on him," Barcella told Motz. "He doesn't have the attitude, the arrogance, the ego that he had before."

Billman, who wasn't present at the hearing, is imprisoned at the Federal Correctional Institution in Greenville, Ill., where he teaches a continuing education course titled "Fundamentals of Investment," court papers said.

The course, offered to inmates, was mentioned by his attorneys as an example of how Billman has tried to turn his life around.

"He seeks to build an honest, law-abiding life upon leaving prison," Billman's attorneys maintained in legal motions. "Under the guidance and eye of prison officials, he has taught classes in finance and real estate, sharing his knowledge and experience with other individuals."

Since imposing the stiff sentence on Billman, Motz has received more than a half-dozen letters from Billman's wife, daughters and other relatives pleading for his release. But he was not swayed and would not grant immediate release.

"I hope Mr. Billman's changed, but there's no factual basis for me to conclude that," the judge said. "I don't think he's done anything to help anybody."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara S. Sale said she had no objection to allowing Billman's release when he is 65 or 67 years old, noting, "We don't want to burden the federal Bureau of Prisons with an aging population."

Billman was convicted of using $28 million in Community Savings and Loan's investments to prop up failing real estate and business partnerships he was involved in. He also paid himself millions in unearned dividends.

With authorities closing in on his scheme, Billman wired $22 million to Swiss bank accounts in 1988 and fled to Europe, using another alias, George Lady, the name of a former college roommate.

The hunt for him ended in March 1993, when the American proprietor of a shop in Paris recognized Billman -- who regularly bought Tootsie Rolls at the store -- from a wanted poster. The owners of the shop were paid a $200,000 reward, prosecutors said yesterday.

Pub Date: 9/06/97

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