Taking note of Rusnak now: a case of too little, too late

February 10, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON THE RAW morning that John M. Rusnak became a household sneer on both sides of the Atlantic, for reasons owing to a slightly misplaced $750 million from Allfirst Financial Inc., there gathered outside his Smith Avenue home a contingent of reporters paying the kind of attention to him that his superiors failed utterly to pay.

"Which one's his house?" inquired two Reuters reporters, hopping blithely from a cab and telling their driver to stick around and keep the meter running.

"Up there," said a guy from London's Daily Mirror. "But they're getting a little nasty about trespassing, so watch out."

The two from Reuters, a woman with blond curls and a fellow with a black leather jacket and sneakers, did not break stride. They skipped up the long driveway to get a close look at the place.

"The estate," one of the London newspaper guys called it. They're the cream of the British foreign news bureaus gathered here, from The Financial Times, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Evening Standard, the Irish Independent, the BBC, all with faithful followers back home wondering whether their savings have been squandered by some bloke in a faraway place called Baltimore.

"Where's the grand entrance?" asks the Evening Standard's guy, James Langston, standing next to a freelance photographer in black jacket and pants and a black cloth cap as though dressed to blow up a bridge.

"Grand entrance," indeed. It sounds as if he's ready to describe the Rusnak home along the lines of Tara. It's the way those overseas like to typecast Americans. We live on estates. John Rusnak, we now know, was making $85,000 a year - nice pay, but not exactly "estate" money - as a currency trader for Allfirst. This meant he traded currency based essentially on bets regarding the relationship between overseas money and the U.S. dollar.

Except that he didn't have the abilities of the simplest bookmaker, who would understand that the first rule of survival is to know when to lay off.

There is no indication, an assistant U.S. attorney has told this newspaper, that Rusnak attempted to steal money. But he seems at least to have made some dreadful mistakes, and then tried clumsily to hide them until he could make them right again. And, perhaps most crucially, those assigned to watch for such mistakes apparently had better things to do with their time.

Is that beautiful? Those who open a checking account and find themselves overdrawn by 47 cents wind up with fines for their carelessness. Bank policy, they're informed. Pocket change, the banks know how to monitor. They have systems designed to squeeze those who are forced to pinch their pennies. But, over the course of a year, an insider misplaces $750 million - and this, nobody notices.

"Nothing is wrong with the core activities at Allfirst," said Susan C. Keating, Allfirst's president and chief executive, on the day she attempted to make her bank employees look competent. Who is she kidding?

Assuming the best of it, we had a 37-year-old guy, devoted family man, trusted with millions in currency from all nations even as it slips through his fingers - and the first time anybody gets seriously concerned is Monday, when Rusnak doesn't show up for work.

Thus, by Thursday, we had all manner of reporters gathered outside his Smith Avenue home, a couple of blocks above Mount Washington Village. Rusnak was said to be in contact with his attorney, who was said to be in touch with the FBI. His wife was said to be waiting out the storm inside their house, where she warned everybody to keep their distance.

"Forget it," declared James Lanston, the guy from the Evening Standard, striding along the edge of the Rusnak property. "First rule of corporate fraud: You want privacy, live in a gated community."

Or else face the mob: American reporters, and all these British types. Their papers back home, noting that Allfirst's parent company is the Dublin-based Allied Irish Banks PLC, broke the story the day before it landed here.

"They're playing it very big over there," says the guy from the Daily Mail.

"Front page," says the guy from the Mirror.

Around here, too, the story's been plastered on the front page. And now, more than a dozen reporters stand in the raw morning mist, wondering where the story goes next. The two Reuters reporters, having left their cab with the meter running, can be seen near the Rusnak home, noodling about, when here come the cops.

The two Brits slip off the premises. The cops go into the house and come back out. They come down the driveway and stop to talk to reporters. They are crisp and professional. Mrs. Rusnak, they say, wants her privacy. If anyone goes near the house, she wants them arrested for trespassing.

Fair enough. Thus, the question might be asked: Why are we standing here in the cold? Anticipating an outbreak of information? Of course not. Rusnak's not around. Nor are any bank records or ticked-off depositors.

This is the old TV dodge, where you wait around for the briefest glimpse of a player and then call it news if you get a snapshot. It's the barest hint of trouble in the air.

Of course, if Rusnak's bosses had paid even that much attention to him, there might not be $750 million missing today.

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