Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Who killed Wilmington Trust?

Loan officer sentenced; developer indicted; executives sued

Who killed Wilmington Trust?

Wilmington Trust Corp. was sold to M&T Bank Corp. because of crippling losses on construction loans for southern Delaware retirement communities. (File Photo)
Wilmington Trust Corp. was sold to M&T Bank Corp. because of crippling losses on construction loans for southern Delaware retirement communities. (File Photo)

It's two years and a season since Wilmington Trust Co., the biggest bank still based in the Philadelphia area, went belly up, after lending $1 billion to developers and other clients who weren't going to pay it back, and was forcibly acquired, by M&T Bank Corp., Buffalo, for a fraction of its past value, hurting the mutual funds, pension funds, bank employees and heirs of the founding du Pont family who owned shares, and cutting around 700 workers amid a tough employment market.

Other big banks -- First Union, National City -- vanished in similar debacles or -- Citigroup, Bank of America -- had to be bailed out by taxpayers and the Federal Reserve after similarly risky, dumb decisions during the real estate bubble that blew up in 2008.

Notoriously, in contrast with past bank debacles like the Bush I-era savings and loan crisis, the Obama administration has failed to press criminal charges against the errant bosses, traders, salesmen and customers who got paid as they wrecked their companies, leaving the rest of us to clean up their mess.

But in Wilmington, it's starting to look like some people may actually get punished for killing the bank:

- On Feb. 13, former Main Line-based Wilmington Trust lender Kevin McAllister was sentenced to 20 months in prison for his role in frauds that cost the bank $2.5 million.

McAllister had pleaded guilty to bank fraud, bank bribery, loan application fraud, and tax evasion for his role in a kickback scheme by Delaware County mortgage broker Bernadette Nicholas. Wilmington Trust loan officer McAllister collected kickbacks worth $379,000 in exchange for approving loans that netted Nicholas about three times as much in fees. Dennis Nicholas, the bagman for this scheme, was sentenced to 72 months; broker Bernadette was sentenced to 42 months. McAllister and Bernadette Nicholas are also supposed to pay $2.5 million in restitution to Wilmington Trust (more is owed to Malvern Federal Savings, another victim in the case.)

- On Jan. 23, Delaware developer Michael A. Zimmerman was indicted by a grand jury for conspiracy to commit bank fraud, money laundering and false statements to a bank for lying to Wilmington Trust so he could collect $37 million in loan money for three shopping centers Zimmerman claimed he was going to build in Sussex and Kent Counties, in lower Delaware. He didn't build the shopping centers, and he made $26 million of the bank's money disappear.

- On Dec. 11, Gladwyne developer Michael Pouls pleaded guilty to fraud for fooling Wilmington Trust into lending him $10 million by faking $30 million in made-up investments in his TD Ameritrade accounts. Pouls faxed statements every month to a bank loan officer. Apparently the bank never checked until the money was all gone. Pouls used the same accounts to fool National Penn Bank into lending him another $3.5 milion. He faces up to 120 years in prison, $4 million in fines, and an order to pay back the money he took. His mansion is For Sale.

The Zimmerman indictment and the Pouls case fit with allegations made in a two-year-old lawsuit by a group of union pension funds and other Wilmington Trust investors against former chief executive Ted Cecala and his right-hand man, Robert V.A. Harra. The shareholders charge the bankers dismantled or ignored sensible loan rules and drove their lenders to extend ever more credit to questionable development projects, even as other banks around the country were cutting back.

Unlike Pouls, Zimmerman is fighting the charges and blaming the bank.

Cecala was an accountant by training, not a loan officer; his goal was to grow the bank by making more loans, recession or no recession. Harra, a popular Wilmington clubman, was Cecala's head cheerleader: bank officers tell me he used to close meetings with the exhortation, "Go Forth and Sell!," long after other banks recognized the real estate bubble was popping.

Cecala and Harra gambled that the 2008 recession wouldn't last long. Their loan officers, according to the lawsuit and subsequent testimony, kept boosting loan amounts to characters like Zimmerman, even as the recession deepened, and failed to make basic checks to see if the money was going where the bank thought it was going. (Some was actually siphoned off to projects in the Bahamas, according to a statement by Delaware's U.S. attorney, Charles Oberly.)

Were the loan officers and their immediate supervisors at fault? Is it possible McAllister wasn't the only Wilmington Trust lender with side deals and kickbacks making him money through bad loans with the bank's money?

Their brother bankers don't seem to think so: senior Wilmington Trust loan and credit officials, including men closely involved with the credits paid to Zimmerman and other payback-challenged southern Delaware developers, were quickly hired by WSFS, First Niagara, Mid-Coast, TD and other regional banks after Wilmington Trust blew up.

Or were Cecala and Harra, as the big bosses, ultimately responsible? They were well-paid to sell the crippled bank, though they'd have made millions more if they could have kept it solvent and sold at the top of the market instead of the bottom. They've been kept on at M&T, at shareholders' expense: for bank bosses, failure still pays, if they can sell the wreckage while they're still in charge.

But this isn't the end of the story. Wilmington lawyers and bankers say SEC, FBI and Justice Department officers have been calling on Wilmington Trust veterans over the past year.

U.S. Attorney Oberly, a former Delaware Attorney General, in his brief statement about the Zimmerman lawsuit said the investigation is continuing; which may mean the grand jury has more indictments to hand down.

Why has this happened at Wilmington Trust, and not, so far as we know, at First Union, National City, Bank of America, or other bigger banks that got wrecked in the mortgage meltdown? 

The Philadelphia and Wilmington federal prosecutors don't appear to have coordinated. Philadelphia, at least, is not working with Justice Department officials, spokeswoman Patricia Hartmann told me. Oberly won't comment.

Maybe Wilmington is a little bit different place from some of those other banking centers. While those other institutions have diffuse, global shareholders who long ago moved on to greener prospects, Wilmington Trust still had a significant base of local shareholders, people who held onto the stock at low tax bases and figured it would be safe for a second century.

These people were outraged by their bank's sudden collapse, and to learn it was handing out their money carelessly to loser projects, after years of hearing Cecala and Harra insist they were careful, conservative stewards.

Maybe the local prosecutor is a little more sympathetic to their complaints than his counterparts in more homogenized parts of America.

Joseph N. DiStefano
About this blog

PhillyDeals posts raw drafts and updates of Joseph N. DiStefano's columns and stories about Philly-area finance, investment, commercial real estate, tech, hiring and public spending, which he's been writing since 1989, mostly for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn, taught writing at St. Joe's, and has written the book Comcasted, more than a thousand columns, and thousands of articles, and raised six children with his wife, who is a saint.

Reach Joseph N. at JoeD@phillynews.com or 215 854 5194.

Joseph N. DiStefano
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