Rusnak pleads guilty to count of bank fraud

Former Allfirst trader's plea agreement calls for 7 1/2 years in prison

Sending `a very clear statement'

He's barred from working at federally insured banks

October 25, 2002|By Bill Atkinson and Robert Little | Bill Atkinson and Robert Little,SUN STAFF

John M. Rusnak, the Allfirst Financial Inc. currency trader who lost $691.2 million in one of the biggest banking scandals in history, pleaded guilty yesterday to one count of bank fraud, part of a deal with prosecutors that calls for him to serve 7 1/2 years in prison.

Rusnak, 37, won't be formally sentenced until Jan. 17, but his plea agreement calls for a 90- month prison term followed by five years of supervised release.

He also will be barred from working at a bank or other federally insured financial institutions, and he might have to make restitution, though that would be based partly on his ability to pay.

Rusnak, who appeared in U.S. District Court in Baltimore before Judge William M. Nickerson, did not speak with reporters on the advice of his attorney.

"It is a bitter pill," said David Irwin, Rusnak's attorney, who stood next to his client outside the hearing room.

Rusnak, whose sentence was trimmed because he has cooperated with the government, will not be eligible for parole, though he could have his term reduced by as much as 13 1/2 months for good behavior. He remains free and isn't expected to begin his prison term until after his sentencing hearing.

Prosecutors were pleased with the agreement.

"This is a very stiff white-collar sentence," said Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio. "We wanted to send a very clear statement out there that we consider this a serious crime. We wanted a very serious sentence in this case."

Rusnak pleaded guilty more than eight months after Baltimore-based Allfirst and its parent, Allied Irish Banks PLC of Dublin, Ireland, revealed the staggering losses and pointed the finger at Rusnak, who was hired as a trader in 1993.

The fraudulent trading might have begun as early as 1996 when Rusnak started losing money and was "fearful of losing his job," said Stephen M. Schenning, a federal prosecutor in the case.

Rusnak gambled that the Japanese yen would rise in value against the dollar, but losses on his bets mounted, according to federal documents. He used a number of methods to conceal his failing trades, which made it look as if he were booking profits for Allfirst.

He created fake trades and entered them into the bank's computer system, which ultimately made Allfirst's profits rise, according to the government's statement of facts. The entries hid the fact that he was operating over his trading limit, which allowed him to make even more trades. The false entries also disguised that he was taking on high-level risk and losing money.

Rusnak created a dozen "bogus" trade confirmations from his laptop computer, Schenning said. Suspicion about those documents ultimately led bank officials' discovery of the fraud.

DiBiagio called Rusnak's efforts to conceal the fake trades a "deliberate pattern of deceit." Though Rusnak never stole any money, he reaped about $400,000 in performance-related bonuses.

DiBiagio and other federal officials said Rusnak's guilty plea is not the end to the Allfirst banking scandal and that an investigation into the fraud is continuing. He declined to elaborate on what he called the "next phase" of the case, though he noted that Rusnak's plea agreement requires that he cooperate with the investigation.

"We continue to pursue any and all aspects of this case, and will leave no stone unturned," said Jennifer Smith Love, the FBI's assistant special agent in charge of the Baltimore office.

Gregg L. Bernstein, a defense attorney at Martin, Snyder & Bernstein in Baltimore, said he thinks prosecutors are investigating people who supervised Rusnak. "You work your way up the chain ... perhaps see if there are other culpable individuals," he said.

He said Rusnak's proposed sentence seemed reasonable.

"I am not surprised by the amount," Bernstein said. "Seven and a half years for a first-time offender in a white-collar crime is a very significant sentence. Given the magnitude of the loss, it seems to be a fair sentence. The loss was off the charts."

The fraud led to a sweeping overhaul of Allfirst's executive suite. Rusnak was fired from Allfirst along with six co-workers and supervisors who failed to detect the losses.

In the spring, Allied Irish sent Eugene C. Sheehy to Baltimore to take over for Chairman Frank P. Bramble, who took early retirement after the scandal broke. Susan C. Keating, Allfirst's president and chief executive, resigned in July.

Allied Irish agreed last month to sell Allfirst to M&T Bank Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y., in a $3.1 billion deal that they say was in the works before the scandal was uncovered.

"We are pleased that this part of the foreign exchange fraud case is being brought to a conclusion," Allfirst spokesman Philip Hosmer said. He declined to discuss Rusnak's plea agreement or the continuing investigation.

Rusnak entered the courtroom at 9:15 a.m. yesterday, looking relaxed in a dark suit and blue shirt and accompanied by Irwin. His wife, Linda, who has not attended any of Rusnak's court appearances, was not at the hearing.

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