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Wilmington Trust ex-president, CFO gets 6-year prison terms for lying to U.S., private investors in 2008 meltdown

U.S. District Judge Richard Andrews called Robert Harra’s offenses the “worst financial crime” in Delaware in 35 years but said he didn’t think a longer sentence would add deterrent value.

Wilmington Trust's former headquarters in Wilmington, Del.
Wilmington Trust's former headquarters in Wilmington, Del.Read moreJoseph N. DiStefano / Staff

In one of the few criminal cases emerging from the 2008 financial crisis, Robert V.A. Harra Jr., former president of Wilmington Trust Corp., and David Gibson, the bank’s former chief financial officer, were each sentenced to six years in federal prison on Monday. They had been convicted in May, along with two lieutenants, for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government and private investors.

U.S. District Judge Richard Andrews also fined each of the ex-bank executives $300,000. He called Harra’s offenses the “worst financial crime” in Delaware since at least the 1980s but added that he didn’t think a longer sentence would add deterrent value, given Harra’s age of 69, a report that he faces prostate cancer, and letters from more than 100 Harra supporters, including former Delaware Govs. Jack Markell, a Democrat, and Mike Castle, a Republican; plus charities Harra has helped.

A smaller group of investors and ex-employees wrote to urge Andrews to throw the book at the bankers.

U.S. Attorney David Weiss blamed Harra for the “aggressive sales culture” that wrecked the bank, and called Gibson “the ultimate decision-maker” who approved fraudulent financial reports. Prosecutor Robert Kravetz called Harra the banker most responsible for the fraud and added that charitable work to burnish a bank’s reputation is part of a banker’s job.

Kravetz said Harra’s cover-up of the bank’s losses as it kept luring investors contributed to the bank’s failure and its sale at a deep discount in 2010 to M&T Bank.

Harra, who has shaved his head and gained weight in the seven years it took for the case to reach trial, stood with his lawyer, McCarter & English chairman Michael P. Kelly, to hear the sentence. Kelly repeatedly called his client — the son of an Army colonel and a secretary — “honorable," said Harra had lost money with other investors when the stock price fell, and accused the government of making his client a “scapegoat.” He said Harra would appeal.

His wife of 47 years, Linda; his two children; and at least some of his five grandchildren were in the courtroom, as well as fellow bankers who shook their heads in disagreement when prosecutor Kravetz blamed the bank’s failure on its executives’ crimes.

But the bankers weren’t convicted of financial failure. It was for lies they told in trying to raise more capital from unknowing investors to keep their bank in business.

Harra and Gibson were sentenced for hiding real estate development losses in a desperate bid to attract government and private investors to shore up the bank, which was the biggest still based in the Philadelphia area before its financial collapse and forced sale to M&T Bank Corp.

The bank’s collapse cost more than 700 of the bank’s employees their jobs, stripped more than 2,000 workers of retirement assets, and destroyed capital for investors, including members of the founding du Pont family as well as the general public.

Harra was sentenced in the morning and Gibson in the afternoon. Former chief credit officer William North and former controller Kevyn Rakowski are to be sentenced Wednesday.

Prosecutors say the Wilmington Trust bankers were singled out because they went farther than other financial bosses and broke the law in their efforts to hide losses — mostly to Delaware Shore-area developers — all to convince investors and a federal bailout agency.

“The government views Defendant Harra as the most culpable of the four defendants, which would ordinarily compel a sentence at the mid- to high-level of the guidelines range,” meaning nine to 10 years, Weiss' staff wrote last month in a sentencing memo.

But prosecutors also argued for a bit of leniency, acknowledging that Harra had deep roots and many supporters in Delaware’s business and political communities. "The government respectfully requests that the Court sentence Defendant Harra to a term of imprisonment of 96 months,” along with a large fine.

Former Wilmington Trust chief executive Ted T. Cecala was not charged, a decision that Weiss has categorized as a judgment call comparable to prosecutors' sometime determination to charge lesser gang officials when they aren’t as confident in trying a kingpin.

On May 3, the four bankers were convicted on charges of conspiracy 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 funds from the government and private investors.

The bankers had protested that their practices were common in the banking industry. Indeed, falling property prices in southern Delaware — which the jury found the bankers had failed to disclose, as bank regulators require — have slowly returned toward their pre-collapse values. The bank had not marked assets at market valuation.

Wilmington Trust raised $287 million from investors in 2009 without disclosing that it faced hundreds of millions of dollars in bad-loan losses. The bank also accepted $330 million from the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which also was not informed about the bad development loans.

Wilmington Trust and its successor, M&T, agreed to pay the government $60 million in a civil settlement in exchange for a government agreement to drop criminal charges against the bank.

Afterward, Christy Goldsmith-Romero, special inspector general for TARP, said the six-year sentences were among the longest handed out to 65 bankers and others who have been convicted of fraud in connection with the bank bailout program.

She said the Wilmington Trust officials fit into the “pattern of crime” that led to the last financial crisis; they sought “greedy, aggressive loan growth with no regard to accountability,” wrecking the bank as the “inevitable consequence of that recklessness.”

Other banks had been troubled, she said, but most bankers “chose to tell the truth," even if it meant the forced sale of their banks, rather than risk breaking the law and going to prison.

After sentencing, the bankers were allowed to leave the courthouse and head home for the holidays. Harra was ordered to report to the Bureau of Prisons on Feb. 19 for assignment to a federal prison. That gives his lawyers two months to ask for bail while he launches an appeal.

The sentences shocked members of Wilmington’s political and financial elite, and veteran bankers such as Robert Christian, who knew the four convicts when he was Wilmington Trust’s chief financial officer before his fortunately-timed retirement in 2006. “I understand the need for punishment. I do not understand the need waste some talented resources by sending them to prison,” Christian told me in an email from his home in Quakertown, Bucks County. “Perhaps some creativity is needed in the criminal justice system when there are non-violent crimes." He’d like to have seen the ex-bankers sentenced to work in schools, teaching financial literacy.

With the executives directed to prison, Weiss noted that three of Wilmington Trust’s top loan officers are awaiting sentencing next month on prior guilty findings.

Last month, M&T agreed to pay $200 million cash to settle a civil fraud lawsuit filed by shareholders who said the trust’s failure to disclose its true condition cost them when it was sold at a price far below its already depreciated market value. The bank’s auditor, KPMG, also agreed to pay $10 million, the Associated Press reported.

The bank was founded by the dominant branch of Delaware’s wealthy du Pont family in the early 1900s around the same time that Pierre S. du Pont II, the founder of Longwood Gardens, and his cousins reorganized the DuPont Co., eventually making it the most valuable U.S. company. But then came its late 20th century decline, leading to its 2016 merger with Dow Chemical Co. and its planned split into smaller companies.