Former Wilmington Trust Corp. president Robert V.A. Harra Jr. and three of his top lieutenants were found guilty Thursday of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government and investors by a federal court jury that deliberated for a week after a monthlong trial.
The convictions were for lying to bank regulators, investors, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The defendants were accused of filing false financial reports to hide hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to developers that went bad in the Great Recession so they could replace losses with new money from the government and private investors. The jury’s verdict could leave the bankers in prison for the rest of their lives, if they receive the maximum penalties for each charge. Prosecutors expect to recommend sentences later this year.
David Weiss, U.S. Attorney for Wilmington, stood beside prosecutors, FBI and IRS agents, and other federal investigators who worked on the seven-year-old case while calling it a victory for a federal justice system that has lately been accused of favoritism.
“At a time when it’s become sort of a sport to ridicule the Department of Justice, the FBI, and other federal agencies, the convictions ought to warn American corporate executives, and other powerful people, that no one is above the law when they make ‘false and misleading statements,'” Weiss said. Even the powerful “must be held responsible.”
Along with Harra, those convicted were former Wilmington Trust chief financial officer David Gibson, former chief credit officer William North, and former controller Kevyn Rakowski. They remain free pending sentencing and appeal.
Harra is “stunned,” his lawyer, Michael Kelly, of the Wilmington office of McCarter and English, emailed. The retired banker’s wife and grown children were among the spectators who crowded into U.S. District Judge Richard G. Andrews’ courtroom during much of the trial.
“I am in a state of shock,” added Kelly. He later called the jury’s verdict “insane,” and said, “We will vigorously appeal.”
“We maintain David Gibson’s innocence,” the ex-CFO’s lawyer, Kenneth Breen, said. “This isn’t over yet.”
The bankers’ lawyers put on a relatively simple defense, arguing that the highly detailed accusations merely showed common business practices by bankers who had no intent to deceive anyone.
Harra “never in his life ever even thought about committing a crime,” Kelly added. He noted that Judge Andrews had told jurors it wasn’t enough to know that regulators and investors didn’t know about bad loans; jurors needed to find the bankers intended to deceive, if they were to find the bankers guilty.
Weiss praised the jury for paying attention to weeks of technical testimony. He noted that prosecutors Robert Kravetz, Lesley F. Wolf, and Jamie M. McCall had spent years building the case with FBI agents led by Joseph Gordon, IRS agents led by Jonathan Schnetz, and others.
“This was an important case,” because the death of the bank left hundreds of veteran staff unemployed and cost shareholders many millions, Weiss said.
Wilmington Trust leaders “were victims of their own arrogance; they convinced themselves that they knew better,” Weiss added. They did this by continuing to fund speculative developers “while other banks were pulling back,” and by lying about the resulting losses to regulators, investors, and the government’s bank bailout agency.
The bankers’ defense at times seemed to harken back to the days when small-town lenders knew their clients socially and trusted they would eventually make bad loans good, leaving no need to disclose embarrassing losses — the kind of cozy arrangements that flourished under secretive bank regulatory practices.
But “the public has an absolute right to know” the condition of government-insured banks under U.S. law, Weiss said. “Especially when you are going to market” to raise more money from investors — and, in this case, federal agencies.
Kelly and his fellow defense lawyers insisted that it was normal for banks to “extend” loans in times of trouble. But “the jury understood” how abnormal this really was, Weiss said: “They have credit cards, they have home loans — there’s no extensions for them. The bank comes to see you for what you owe.”
Asked why the bank’s top officer, former chief executive and chairman Ted T. Cecala, wasn’t charged alongside Harra and the others, Weiss said he wouldn’t comment on “any plans” to charge others beyond a general statement that with banks, as with drug gangs, “we make a determination whether it’s worth our while and whether we have substantial evidence to convict. That’s the way we approach every case. Draw your own inferences.”
Hours after the verdicts were delivered, Kelly continued to question the basis for the prosecution. “My friend David Weiss said that the actions of the defendants greatly contributed to the demise of the bank,” he said. “I disagree. This case was about the bank’s reporting of matured commercial real estate loans. The bank had been reporting these loans the same way for 28 years and nobody ever told the bank what they had been doing was illegal or wrong.”
But witnesses for the prosecution included one of several Wilmington Trust lenders who have pleaded guilty to fraud since the bank collapsed, veteran bank regulators, investigators for the FBI, IRS, and the special inspector general for the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program. They detailed deceptions by the bankers that prosecutors said went far beyond merely lending money to people who couldn’t pay it back.
Indeed, larger banks, including the former First Union, National City, Washington Mutual, and other commercial lenders, as well as investment banks such as Lehman Bros. and Bear Stearns & Co., also collapsed during the recession after borrowers and clients failed to pay back loans. Their top officers escaped fraud charges.
Wilmington Trust, founded by members of the same branch of the du Pont family who organized the modern chemical company in 1901, was at the time of its collapse the largest commercial bank still headquartered in the Philadelphia region.
After regulators learned of the extent of the company’s loan losses, Wilmington Trust assets — loans and investments, branches in Delaware, the Philadelphia area and Maryland, and offices from London to Las Vegas — were sold at a steep discount to Buffalo-based M&T Corp., which last fall agreed to pay the government and investors $60 million to settle its own alleged criminal liability. A string of lower-ranking Wilmington Trust lending officers had earlier pleaded guilty to fraud charges in relation to questionable loans.
The original 2015 indictment is below: