Walking to Nowhere

Charles Keating Jr. walked.

Or maybe he didn't, at least not permanently. It all depends on whether the feds think a third trial will be the charm. Can we properly call Keating a crook anymore? Hard to say.

O.J. also walked, as we know. And a very big walk it was. But what's O.J. doing back in court? The relatives think a second trial will be the charm. So, did O.J. really walk? Hard to say.

Suge walked, too. For a while. Then he got caught dancin' doggy style at the Malibu house owned by the deputy D.A. who prosecuted him. Now Suge does the perp walk from jail to court. He may do nine. Or maybe not.

Stacey Koon and Lawrence Powell walked very famously and started a riot in the process. Then the feds thought a second trial just might be the charm. They were right and Koon/Powell non-walked, but it took the Supreme Court to say how long they should non-walk.

If a cancer patient tokes up in San Francisco, will he walk? Most certainly, that being the new state law. But what if the same cancer patient goes to Orange County and lights his joint? Sheriff Brad Gates and the feds think a second law just might be the charm. So, it's hard to say.

We live in a confusing time. Nothing seems to end. No decision sticks. On Monday afternoon, Charles Keating Jr. breezed out of the federal courtroom where his conviction for looting his own bank and stealing widows' pension money had been tossed out.

Reporters asked him how he felt, and Keating's face broke into a huge, predator's smile.

"You see me smiling, don't you?" he asked.

The reporters did. And why shouldn't Keating be smiling? He had just benefited powerfully from the phenomenon of our age, the inability to finally decide.

Two juries--one state and one federal--had convicted Keating and sent him to his cell. The federal jury pronounced him guilty of every charge in the indictment. All 73 counts. Civil trials slapped him with $6 billion in judgments.

In each trial, the story was the same. Keating's Lincoln Savings & Loan sold bonds to widows and pensioners using the old S & L adage about their money being safe. One bank memo contained a famous line telling its salesmen to go after "the weak, meek and ignorant."

Lincoln took the money and invested it wildly in the deregulated clime of the '80s. When the schemes collapsed, the bondholders watched their bonds turn to garbage. And the federal government was left with a tab of $3.5 billion.

Keating didn't stop there. He created a secondary scandal by spreading huge amounts of cash around Washington trying to stave off the government auditors. Remember the "Keating Five"? For that matter, remember Alan Cranston?

Lots of bodies in the dust. Lots of convictions. The federal judge called Keating's crimes "staggering." One of the civil judges characterized his behavior as "looting." The federal conviction alone carried a maximum sentence of 525 years. The judge sentenced him to 12 1/2.

And none of it was enough. Keating now walks.

How come? There's a lot of technical reasons. In the state trial, the judge apparently invented a nonexistent crime during his jury instruction. That judge was poor Lance Ito--the very same Lance Ito who may soon find himself hearing parking meter cases in Sun Valley. Anyway, the state conviction was tossed.

Then, several of the federal jurors confessed that they knew of the state conviction during the federal trial. That's a no-no, and the federal conviction was thrown out Monday.

But the real reasons go deeper. While the carnage left by the Keating scandal is huge, the legal case against Keating himself has always been shaky. Judge Ito appeared to get trapped into formulating bogus legal theory precisely because he was trying to push the jury toward conviction in an otherwise weak case.

Keating, you see, essentially is an arrogant swashbuckler who was destined to wind up a billionaire or a busted dreamer. He ended up the latter, and he took a lot of other people's money with him. But that doesn't necessarily make him a criminal.

Did he know about the deception of the widows and pensioners? About the other lies? Oh, probably, but the evidence is not overwhelming.

More important, those lies account for only a small part of the debacle. The big money got lost because Congress, in deregulating the S & Ls while it continued to insure depositors' money, effectively waved candy at Keating and a host of others like him.

And the swashbucklers took the candy. The government was saying, "Do anything you want with the depositors' money. Don't worry, be happy. We've got you insured."


So is Keating really the bad guy? We can't decide. Were Koon and Powell sadistic monsters the night they beat Rodney King? Is Suge a pistol-whipping menace?

As the Lovin' Spoonfuls once posed the problem:

Did you ever have to make up your mind?

To pick up on one and leave the other behind

Did you ever have to finally decide?

No, we almost never finally decide. With Keating, the next twist in the road will take place when the feds choose whether to pursue a third criminal trial or not.

If they do proceed and if Keating is convicted one more time, he will get shipped back to the federal prison in Tucson.

Will that end the matter?

It's hard to say.

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