Former congressman, savings-and-loan expert St Germain dies at 86

Posted Aug. 20, 2014, at 7:31 a.m.

Fernand J. St Germain, a Rhode Island Democrat who rose to chair the banking committee during 14 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, became a force in the deregulation of savings-and-loan institutions, and was stalked by allegations that he used his public office to enrich himself, died Saturday at his summer home in Newport, Rhode Island. He was 86.

The cause was kidney failure, said his daughter Lisette Saint Germain.

“Freddie” St Germain, as he was known, grew up in working-class Woonsocket, Rhode Island, the son of a French-Canadian textile worker. He liked to joke that he never used the period after the first two letters of his surname because he didn’t stake any claim to sainthood.

A lawyer and former state representative, St Germain won election to the House the same year his friend John F. Kennedy became president. The congressman steadily built a career on the Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, becoming an expert in banks, thrift institutions and credit unions.

Those businesses were big spenders in Washington and lavished attention on St Germain after he rose to committee chairman by the early 1980s. He along with Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, crafted legislation that helped to further deregulate savings and loan businesses at a time when they were losing money because of strict federal restraints on the loans they made and the interest rates they paid to depositors.

It was a risky maneuver, one that eventually did not succeed. The S&L crisis peaked by the late 1980s, costing taxpayers tens of billions of dollars as hundreds of thrift institutions failed through bad investments and the generally buckling economy.

“He was the go-to guy for the savings-and-loan industry,” said Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution policy center in Washington and an expert on Rhode Island politics. “It was a classic Washington story of a guy carving a niche for himself and becoming the top decision-maker in that area.

“The deregulation of S&Ls paved the way to financial deregulation writ large,” West added. “St Germain was an important figure because his policy leadership led to deregulation in many other parts of the economy.”

St Germain developed a reputation for sharp political instincts on Capitol Hill, particularly when it came to vote counting to wielding parliamentary procedure to advantage.

Back in Rhode Island, he achieved victory after victory on election day in a state with little Republican Party support. But toward the end of his tenure on Capitol Hill, as a powerful committee chairman, he was shadowed by alleged ethical breaches that suddenly made him a vulnerable incumbent.

After reporting by The Wall Street Journal on St Germain’s finances and his friendships with S&L executives and lobbyists, the Justice Department and the House ethics committee launched probes into the thousands of dollars in dining, travel and entertainment he accepted from industry officials.

They also looked into the no-money-down loans that enabled St Germain to invest in lucrative business ventures, as well as accusations that his office improperly influenced federal banking regulators on behalf of a friend of the congressman.

In the last case, a top aide to St Germain was alleged to have called a federal banking regulator to check on a Florida S&L’s application to convert to stock ownership. After it was approved, the congressman invested $15,000 in stock in the business, with which he had other real estate investments.

According to ethics committee findings, four Rhode Island financial institutions lent St Germain $1.3 million to buy five International House of Pancakes buildings without a down payment. This was in the early 1970s, when his annual congressional salary was $42,500. He later reportedly made a profit of $315,000 from the sale of one IHOP building in Providence.

In its report, the Journal concluded that the congressman amassed $2 million while in public office. St Germain released a statement criticizing the Journal story for “unfair and unsupported innuendos. I have made investments with the objective of providing for my family. I made no apologies for making this effort.”

Ethics committee findings — released in 1987 — said St Germain had been sloppy on his disclosure forms but concluded that he had not abused his office for personal gain. In the matter of the Florida S&L, the committee found no evidence that the federal regulator made any decisions “on behalf” of St Germain.

In early 1988, the Justice Department decided against prosecuting the congressman, citing insufficient evidence. But later that year, unsealed court documents disclosed that department investigators found “substantial evidence of serious and sustained misconduct” by St Germain. The phrase had an impact on what would be the congressman’s final re-election bid.

He faced a lively campaign by a Republican lawyer and political novice, Ronald Machtley.

On the campaign trail, Machtley brought along a pet pig named Les Pork that he said was meant to underscore government waste at a time of soaring budget deficits. Many others saw the animal as an allusion to St Germain’s financial scandals. Either way, the device won Machtley media attention and ultimately enough votes to end St Germain’s legislative career.

Fernand Joseph St Germain was born in Blackstone, Massachusetts, on Jan. 9, 1928, and completed parochial schools in Woonsocket. He graduated from Providence College in 1948 and Boston University law school in 1955, after Army service.

His wife, Rachel O’Neill, whom he married in 1953, died in 1998. Survivors include two daughters, Lisette Saint Germain of Newport and Prague and Laurene Sorensen of Moscow, Idaho; and a sister.

After losing reelection, St Germain was briefly a lobbyist for the S&L industry. He spent most of the 1990s as a top executive with the telecommunications business Transworld Communications in Washington. In recent years, he lived in St. Petersburg, Florida.

 

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