In aftermath of bank closure, critics blame state regulators

The Billings Gazette/December 2, 2004
By Paul Foy

Ephraim, Utah -- The math was simple: Bad loans plus embezzlement brought down a small-town bank.

The loans were made for hasty business ventures in a 9,000-strong polygamist enclave that believed the world was about to end.

The insider's fraud was 24 years in the making and involved cash-filled suitcases and Las Vegas gambling sprees.

But in this farming community in one of Utah poorest counties, where many are struggling to hold their own, resentment runs deep against regulators who shut down the 99-year-old Bank of Ephraim.

They complain that government examiners, fooled by phony bank statements, never detected the fraud. They accuse state regulators of tolerating risky loans to the fundamentalist religious sect halfway down the state.

One of the loans was made for a watermelon farm that never planted a single watermelon. The bank foreclosed on the farm. Another was made to an outfit that salvaged military barracks for motel conversions; that venture went bankrupt when the barracks turned out to have lead paint, asbestos and other hazards.

The loans reached $18 million, 90 percent of the Bank of Ephraim's portfolio, said former bank President Keith Church.

Regulators "allowed it to happen and then closed it when we were trying to fix it," said Church, who took over in 2000. "They were like stink on poop on us."

Afterward, Church learned from business owners that they had been instructed by Rulon Jeffs, former leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to "go out and borrow as much money as they could" because civilization was about to collapse.

State Banking Supervisor Jim Thomas said the Bank of Ephraim was cleaning its balance sheet of the bad loans when embezzlement delivered the knockout punch. He said the bank was irredeemable.

Federal officials say it underscores a shift to outright fraud for bank failures, which used to fail more often because of economic downturns.

A handful of banks still fail each year. "A lot of them, which tend to be small, don't make a big splash until they happen in your back yard. That's the hard way to find out about it," said David Barr, a spokesman for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in Washington, D.C.

Last June's closing of the Bank of Ephraim made instant losers of 50 people and groups ranging from turkey farmers to the local Chevrolet dealer and state college. Together they had $3.6 million in uninsured deposits.

Stockholders who lost millions more insisted they had investors lined up to rescue the bank, but were rebuffed by regulators, who sold the deposits to a bank unwittingly instrumental in its looting, the Far West Bank of Provo, Utah.

Now, attorneys are fighting the federal agency charged with salvaging failed banks over restitution for losers. Many of the losers are small-business owners who learned too late that deposits in any single bank over $100,000 were uninsured, an amount unchanged since 1952.

A bank failure was "the last thing in my mind," said Chevy dealer Ron Greene, who sometimes kept millions at the Bank of Ephraim but through the luck of timing lost only about $100,000 in uninsured deposits. "I thought of it as the rock of Gibraltar."

The FDIC is taking the position that it alone is the victim of the failed bank and responsible for distributing the banks' remaining assets, infuriating townsfolk. In court papers the FDIC says it has sole authority over depleted bank assets, including any restitution recovered from former head cashier Randy K. McArthur and Dean Johnson, an outsider who drew up counterfeit bank statements. Both pleaded guilty in September to looting the bank for two dozen years.

"I've never seen an embezzlement gone on like this for so long. This is an aberration. Most embezzlers are caught quickly," said FBI agent Todd Argyle.

Nearly every month for 24 years McArthur took out sums exceeding $20,000, keeping bills from $5 to $100 stuffed in suitcases and buying a house and expensive cars and leading a double life in St. George, Utah, his gateway to Las Vegas casinos. In his plea deal, McArthur said he divided the loot with Johnson.

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