The Keating Five
Dan Nowicki, Bill Muller
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 1, 2007 10:41 AM
CHAPTER VII: THE KEATING FIVE
As a war hero and U.S. senator, John McCain has been chronicled in pictures.
There are grainy mug shots of a young McCain, printed in U.S. newspapers after his jet was shot down over North Vietnam. There are black-and-white images of his return, grinning and waving.
In happier times, there is McCain holding his newborn daughter while his wife, Cindy, smiles from her hospital bed.
But it is an innocent vacation picture that carries the reminder of the scandal that threatened his political career.
In the picture, taken in the Bahamas, McCain is seated on a bandstand while wearing an outrageous straw party hat. Next to him on the dais sits Charles Keating III, son of developer Charles H Keating Jr.
McCain calls the Keating scandal "my asterisk." Over the years, his opponents have failed to turn it into a period.
It all started in March 1987. Charles H Keating Jr., the flamboyant developer and anti-porn crusader, needed help. The government was poised to seize Lincoln Savings and Loan, a freewheeling subsidiary of Keating's American Continental Corp.
As federal auditors examined Lincoln, Keating was not content to wait and hope for the best. He had spread a lot of money around Washington, and it was time to call in his chits.
One of his first stops was Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz.
The state's senior senator was one of Keating's most loyal friends in Congress, and for good reason. Keating had given thousands of dollars to DeConcini's campaigns. At one point, DeConcini even pushed Keating for ambassador to the Bahamas, where Keating owned a luxurious vacation home.
Now Keating had a job for DeConcini. He wanted him to organize a meeting with regulators to deliver a message: Get off Lincoln's back. Eventually, DeConcini would set up a meeting with five senators and the regulators. One of them was McCain.
McCain already knew Keating well. His ties to the home builder dated to 1981, when the two men met at a Navy League dinner where McCain spoke.
After the speech, Keating walked up to McCain and told him that he, too, was a Navy flier and that he greatly respected McCain's war record. He met McCain's wife and family. The two men became friends.
Charlie Keating always took care of his friends, especially those in politics. McCain was no exception.
In 1982, during McCain's first run for the House, Keating held a fund-raiser for him, collecting more than $11,000 from 40 employees of American Continental Corp. McCain would spend more than $550,000 to win the primary and the general election.
In 1983, as McCain contemplated his House re-election, Keating hosted a $1,000-a-plate dinner for him, even though McCain had no serious competition. When McCain pushed for the Senate in 1986, Keating was there with more than $50,000.
By 1987, McCain had received about $112,000 in political contributions from Keating and his associates.
McCain also had carried a little water for Keating in Washington. While in the House, McCain, along with a majority of representatives, co-sponsored a resolution to delay new regulations designed to curb risky investments by thrifts such as Lincoln.
Despite his history with Keating, McCain was hesitant about intervening. At that point, he had been in the Senate only three months. DeConcini wanted McCain to fly to San Francisco with him and talk to the regulators. McCain refused.
Keating would not be dissuaded.
On March 24 at 9:30 a.m., Keating went to DeConcini's office and asked him if the meeting with the regulators was on. DeConcini told Keating that McCain was nervous.
"McCain's a wimp," Keating replied, according to the book Trust Me, by Michael Binstein and Charles Bowden. "We'll go talk to him."
Keating had other business on Capitol Hill and did not reach McCain's office until 1:30. A DeConcini staffer already had told McCain about the "wimp" insult.
When he arrived, Keating presented McCain with a laundry list of demands for the regulators.
McCain told Keating that he would attend the meeting and find out whether Keating was getting treated fairly but that was all.
The first meeting, on April 2, 1987, in DeConcini's office, included Ed Gray, chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, as well as four senators: DeConcini, McCain, Alan Cranston, D-Calif., and John Glenn, D-Ohio.
(Years later, McCain recalled that DeConcini started the meeting with a reference to "our friend at Lincoln." McCain characterized it as "an unfortunate choice of words, which Gray would remember and repeat publicly many times.")
For Keating, the meeting was a bust. Gray told the senators that as head of the loan board, he worried about the big picture. He didn't have any specific information about Lincoln. Bank regulators in San Francisco would be versed in that, not him. Gray offered to set up a meeting between the senators and the San Francisco regulators.
The second meeting was April 9. The same four senators attended, along with Sen. Don Riegle, D-Mich. Also at the meeting were William Black, then deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp., James Cirona, president of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and Michael Patriarca, director of agency functions at the FSLIC.
In an interview with The Republic, Black said the meeting was a show of force by Keating, who wanted the senators to pressure the regulators into dropping their case against Lincoln. The thrift was in trouble for violating "direct investment" rules, which prohibited S&Ls from taking large ownership positions in various ventures.
"The Senate is a really small club, like the cliche goes," Black said. "And you really did have one-twentieth of the Senate in one room, called by one guy, who was the biggest crook in the S&L debacle."
Black said the senators could have accomplished their goal "if they had simply had us show up and see this incredible room and said, 'Hi. Charles Keating asked us to meet with you. 'Bye.'"
McCain previously had refused DeConcini's request to meet with the Lincoln auditors themselves. In Worth the Fighting For, McCain wrote that he remained "a little troubled" at the prospect, "but since the chairman of the bank board didn't seem to have a problem with the idea, maybe a discussion with the regulators wouldn't be as problematic as I had earlier thought."
McCain concedes that he failed to sense that Gray and the thrift examiners felt threatened by the senators' meddling.
The five senators, including McCain, seemed like a united front to Black.
"They presented themselves as a group," Black said, "and DeConcini is the dad, who's going to take the primary speaking role. Both meetings are in his office, and in both cases it's we want this, with no one going, 'What do you mean we, kemo sabe?'"
According to nearly verbatim notes taken by Black, McCain started the second meeting with a careful comment.
"One of our jobs as elected officials is to help constituents in a proper fashion," McCain said. "ACC (American Continental Corp.) is a big employer and important to the local economy. I wouldn't want any special favors for them. . . .
"I don't want any part of our conversation to be improper."
Black said the comment had the opposite effect for the regulators. It made them nervous about what might really be going on.
"McCain was the weirdest," Black said. "They were all different in their own way. McCain was always Hamlet . . . wringing his hands about what to do."
Glenn, a former astronaut and the first American to orbit the Earth, was not as tactful.
"To be blunt, you should charge them or get off their backs," he told the regulators. "If things are bad there, get to them. Their view is that they took a failing business and put it back on its feet. It's now viable and profitable. They took it off the endangered species list. Why has the exam dragged on and on and on?"
DeConcini added: "What's wrong with this if they're willing to clean up their act?"
Cirona, the banking official, told the senators that it was "very unusual" to hold a meeting to discuss a particular company.
DeConcini shot back: "It's very unusual for us to have a company that could be put out of business by its regulators."
The meeting went on. McCain was quiet. DeConcini carried the ball. The regulators told the senators that Lincoln was in trouble. The thrift, Cirona said, was a "ticking time bomb."
Then Patriarca made a stunning comment, according to transcripts released later.
"We're sending a criminal referral to the Department of Justice," he said. "Not maybe, we're sending one. This is an extraordinarily serious matter. It involves a whole range of imprudent actions. I can't tell you strongly enough how serious this is. This is not a profitable institution."
The statement made DeConcini back off a little.
"The criminality surprises me," he said. "We're not interested in discussing those issues. Our premise was that we had a viable institution concerned that it was being overregulated."
"What can we say to Lincoln?" Glenn asked.
"Nothing," Black responded, "with regard to the criminal referral. They haven't and won't be told by us that we're making one."
"You haven't told them?" Glenn asked.
"No," said Black. "Justice would skin us alive if we did. Those referrals are very confidential. We can't prosecute anyone ourselves. All we can do is refer it to Justice."
After the meeting, McCain was done with Keating.
"Again, I was troubled by the appearance of the meeting," McCain said later. "I stated I didn't want any special favors from them. I only wanted them (Lincoln Savings) to be fairly treated."
Black doesn't completely buy that argument. If McCain was concerned about Keating asking him to do things that were improper, why go to either meeting at all?
Black said McCain probably went because Keating was close to being the political godfather of Arizona and McCain still had plenty of ambition.
"Keating was incredibly powerful," Black said. "And incredibly useful."
McCain's reservations aside, Keating accomplished his goal. He had bought some time, though the price was very high.
A month later, the San Francisco regulators finished a yearlong audit and recommended that Lincoln be seized. But the report was virtually ignored because of politics on the bank board.
Gray was being replaced as chairman by Danny Wall, who was more sympathetic to Keating.
The audit, which described Lincoln as a thrift reeling out of control, sat on a shelf.
In September 1987, the investigation was taken away from the San Francisco office, away from Black and Patriarca. In May 1988, it was transferred to Washington, where Lincoln would get a new audit.
It was a win for Keating. A battle, not the war.
Back in San Francisco, Black was fuming.
"Clearly, we were shot in the back," he would say later.
Despite the reprieve, Keating's businesses continued to spiral downward, taking the five senators with him. Together, the five had accepted more than $300,000 in contributions from Keating, and their critics added a new term to the American lexicon: "The Keating Five."
The Keating Five became synonymous for the kind of political influence that money can buy. As the S&L failure deepened, the sheer magnitude of the losses hit the press. Billions of dollars had been squandered. The five senators were linked as the gang who shilled for an S&L bandit.
S&L "trading cards" came out. The Keating Five card showed Charles Keating holding up his hand, with a senator's head adorning each finger. McCain was on Keating's pinkie.
As the investigation dragged through 1988, McCain dodged the hardest blows. Most landed on DeConcini, who had arranged the meetings and had other close ties to Keating, including $50 million in loans from Keating to DeConcini's aides.
But McCain made a critical error.
He had adopted the blanket defense that Keating was a constituent and that he had every right to ask his senators for help. In attending the meetings, McCain said, he simply wanted to make sure that Keating was treated like any other constituent.
Keating was no ordinary constituent to McCain.
On Oct. 8, 1989, The Arizona Republic revealed that McCain's wife and her father had invested $359,100 in a Keating shopping center in April 1986, a year before McCain met with the regulators.
The paper also reported that the McCains, sometimes accompanied by their daughter and baby-sitter, had made at least nine trips at Keating's expense, sometimes aboard the American Continental jet. Three of the trips were made during vacations to Keating's opulent Bahamas retreat at Cat Cay.
McCain also did not pay Keating for some of the trips until years after they were taken, after he learned that Keating was in trouble over Lincoln. Total cost: $13,433.
When the story broke, McCain did nothing to help himself.
"You're a liar," McCain said when a Republic reporter asked him about the business relationship between his wife and Keating.
"That's the spouse's involvement, you idiot," McCain said later in the same conversation. "You do understand English, don't you?"
He also belittled reporters when they asked about his wife's ties to Keating.
"It's up to you to find that out, kids."
The paper ran the story.
In his 2002 book, McCain confesses to "ridiculously immature behavior" during that particular interview and adds that The Republic reporters' "persistence in questioning me about the matter provoked me to rage."
"I don't know how (The Republic journalists) would have reported the story had I been more civil and understanding or just more of a professional during the interview," McCain wrote.
At a news conference after the story ran, McCain was a changed man. He stood calmly for 90 minutes and answered every question.
On the shopping center, his defense was simple. The deal did not involve him. The shares in the shopping center had been bought by a partnership set up between McCain's wife and her father. (The couple also had a prenuptial agreement that separated Cindy McCain's finances and dealings from his.)
But McCain also had to explain his trips with Keating and why he didn't pay Keating back right away.
On that score, McCain admitted he had fouled up. He said he should have reimbursed Keating immediately, not waited several years. His staff said it was an oversight, but it looked bad, McCain jetting around with Keating, then going to bat for him with the federal regulators.
"I was in a hell of a mess," McCain later would write.
Meanwhile, Lincoln continued to founder.
In April 1989, two years after the Keating Five meetings, the government seized Lincoln, which declared bankruptcy. In September 1990, Keating was booked into Los Angeles County Jail, charged with 42 counts of fraud. His bond was set at $5 million.
During Keating's trial, the prosecution produced a parade of elderly investors who had lost their life's savings by investing in American Continental junk bonds.
Verdict: 'Poor judgment'
In November 1990, the Senate Ethics Committee convened to decide what punishment, if any, should be doled out to the Keating Five.
Robert Bennett, who would later represent President Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones case, was the special counsel for the committee. In his opening remarks, he slammed DeConcini but went lightly on McCain, the lone Republican ensnared with four Democrats.
"In the case of Senator McCain, there is very substantial evidence that he thought he had an understanding with Senator DeConcini's office that certain matters would not be gone into at the meeting with (bank board) Chairman (Ed) Gray," Bennett said.
"Moreover, there is substantial evidence that, as a result of Senator McCain's refusal to do certain things, he had a fallout with Mr. Keating."
Among the Keating Five, McCain took the most direct contributions from Keating. But the investigation found that he was the least culpable, along with Glenn. McCain attended the meetings but did nothing afterward to stop Lincoln's death spiral.
Lincoln was the most expensive failure in the national S&L scandal. Taxpayers lost more than $2 billion on the bailout. McCain also looked good in contrast to DeConcini, who continued to defend Keating until fall 1989, when federal regulators filed a $1.1 billion civil racketeering and fraud suit against Keating, accusing him of siphoning Lincoln's deposits to his family and into political campaigns.
In January 1993, a federal jury convicted him of 73 counts of wire and bankruptcy fraud in the collapse of American Continental and Lincoln. Keating was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in prison but served just 50 months before the conviction was overturned on a technicality. In 1999, at age 75, he pleaded guilty to four counts of fraud. He was sentenced to time served.
In the end, McCain received only a mild rebuke from the Ethics Committee for exercising "poor judgment" for intervening with the federal regulators on behalf of Keating. Still, he felt tarred by the affair.
"The appearance of it was wrong," McCain said. "It's a wrong appearance when a group of senators appear in a meeting with a group of regulators because it conveys the impression of undue and improper influence. And it was the wrong thing to do."
McCain noted that Bennett, the independent counsel, recommended that McCain and Glenn be dropped from the investigation.
"For the first time in history, the Ethics Committee overruled the recommendation of the independent counsel," McCain said. For his part, DeConcini is critical of McCain's role in the affair. The two senators never were particularly cozy, and the stress of the public scrutiny worsened their relations.
In his memoir Senator Dennis DeConcini: From the Center of the Aisle, he praises the decision to keep McCain on the hook.
"It became clear to me, and it was later confirmed by Ethics Committee members, that Bennett was attempting to dismiss the charges against McCain, and in order to appear nonpartisan, he included Glenn in this effort," DeConcini wrote with co-author Jack August. "Thanks to the three Democrats on the committee and perhaps with the help of Senator (Jesse) Helms (R-N.C.), however, the charges remained in place for all the senators under investigation. So all of us had to attend the 23-day public hearing, which was indeed a trial, before the six-member Senate Ethics Committee."
In the book, DeConcini reiterates his allegation that McCain leaked to the media "sensitive information" about certain closed proceedings in order to hurt DeConcini, Riegle and Cranston. It's a fairly serious charge. The Boston Globe revisited the Keating Five leaks in 2000. The story paraphrased a congressional investigator, Clark B. Hall, as personally concluding that "McCain was one of the principal leakers." The newspaper also reported that McCain, under oath, had denied involvement with the leaks.
McCain owns up to his mistake this way:
"I was judged eventually, after three years, of using, quote, poor judgment, and I agree with that assessment."