Rusnak clearing the air in Allfirst scandal

January 23, 2003|By Michael Olesker

FOR THOSE of us who get angry letters from our bank if we're 18 cents overdrawn, the lingering question about John N. Rusnak, the bad boy of one of the biggest bank-fraud scandals in history, is this: How do you misplace $691 million over five years without somebody making you stop?

"I can't say," Rusnak said this week.

"What about your direct bosses?" he was asked. "Weren't they paying attention?"

"I can't say," Rusnak said.

"What about government auditors?"

"I can't say."

What he means is, he's not permitted to say. Rusnak now prepares to take the rap for the missing $691 million that left his former employer, Allfirst Financial Inc., in such embarrassment that the financial community joked they'd have to change the bank's name - to All Gone.

Three months after pleading guilty to one count of bank fraud, and a week after he was sentenced to 7 1/2 years behind bars, Rusnak enjoys his final days of freedom - he'll leave for prison in about three weeks - sitting in his comfortable Northwest Baltimore home with his son and daughter doing their elementary school homework in the next room and his wife due home from work in a few hours.

He has agreed to an interview to clear the air, if not his conscience.

"I'm really sorry," he says immediately, "and I accept the consequences for what I've done. It bothers me that people think I'm not sorry. I'll spend the rest of my life trying to show that I am. I don't want to sound sappy, but I want people to know I'm not evil, I'm not a monster. I did something terrible, but I didn't do it for the money, and I didn't pocket any of the money.

"When I first realized I was in trouble," Rusnak said, "I tried to make enough money to cover it up. But I just kept getting deeper into trouble."

"When did you realize you were in trouble?" he was asked.

"When it was still a minuscule amount," Rusnak said.

"How much?"

"Maybe $100 million."

If this is seen as "minuscule," then we understand the proportions involved.

As part of his penance, a federal judge said Rusnak has to reimburse Allfirst Financial the $691 million he lost. But this is a kind of judicial wink. Though the sum will never be repaid, Rusnak is required to pay the bank $1,000 a month for five years after his release from prison.

The scandal made news around the world. The BBC called Rusnak "a rogue trader." Pravda said he "bamboozled the controls which banks are meant to have in place to stop such behavior," but then asked, "Were regulators asleep?"

Rusnak can't - or won't - say.

What he will say is this: "I didn't do it for the money. I could have stolen almost any amount if I'd wanted to - I had a lot of authority. If I was looking to profit, I would have shipped $20 million out of the country and then left. There was very little oversight. But that's not what happened."

To those of us who don't fully understand the nature of Rusnak's former work - trading currencies - he explained it this way: "It's like buying a stock at $40, and it drops to $10. You sell it at a loss. But you bought it with borrowed money, and you didn't get enough to pay back the original loan. I was borrowing money - which is common. But I kept getting deeper and deeper.

"Every single day I was there, I should have reported the losses and stopped trading. It was my inability to say no and admit failure. I worried every day, and every night I couldn't sleep. I knew I was betraying people's trust. When I slept, I had nightmares about everything collapsing and my wife leaving me."

For five years, Rusnak reportedly hid losses by doctoring the company's books, creating fake computer trades, and bullying subordinates who challenged him.

Did those concerned subordinates not report the problem to Rusnak's bosses?

"I can't say," Rusnak said.

Nearly a year ago, Baltimore-based Allfirst and its parent, Allied Irish Banks PLC of Dublin, Ireland, revealed the enormous losses. (Despite Rusnak's fraud, Allfirst has continued to show profits, and no depositors have lost any money. But Chairman Frank P. Bramble took early retirement in the wake of the scandal, and Susan C. Keating, Allfirst's president and chief executive, resigned last summer. And bank officials say that employees suffered emotionally and some did not receive bonuses or raises because of the losses.)

"When the case broke," Rusnak says, "it was a huge, massive relief to me. Because it was over. I could sleep again, because I didn't have people chasing me."

He says he told his wife, Linda, "I made a huge mistake. I hope you forgive me." He says she told him, "As long as you turn yourself in and confess everything, we'll survive."

He says he told his children, who are 9 and 7, "We're still going to be a family. But Daddy did something wrong. It's like someone cheated on a test at school. I cheated at work, and then I told the truth. And now I have to go away for a while."

He says the children told him, "We're going to miss you."

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