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Was Bradenton bank's failure, sale premature?

“Some banks needed to be closed, but mine did not need to be,” says Charlie Conoley, Horizon’s CEO.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

“Some banks needed to be closed, but mine did not need to be,” says Charlie Conoley, Horizon’s CEO.

Charlie Conoley has lost the fight to save his bank.

He says an area buyer last week had placed $7 million in escrow as a good faith gesture to acquire Horizon Bank, a move he thought should keep federal regulators at bay.

But it was to no avail. Conoley, CEO and founder of the Bradenton bank, says regulators ignored the offer of fresh capital, declared Horizon insolvent on Friday and sold the bank in a pre-arranged deal to an Arkansas bank seeking a foothold in the Sunshine State.

Horizon's four branches opened Monday as offices of the Bank of the Ozarks.

Instead of the comeback Conoley had so desperately scrapped for, Horizon officially became Florida's 23rd failure and the 119th to be seized nationwide in 2010.

Conoley had tried every means possible — including inviting this columnist two weeks ago to hear firsthand his side of the troubled bank saga.

Don't assume Horizon's end means the banker is finished.

Conoley argues his bank was seized prematurely. He says the area buyer, described by the banker only as a Tampa Bay area businessman of means willing to ante up an eventual $20 million, even used his own political contacts without success to win time to buy Horizon Bank.

What most galls Conoley, at 51 a veteran Florida banker, is that the closing of Horizon and sale to the Bank of the Ozarks by the FDIC will result in a cost to the federal deposit insurance fund of nearly $60 million. Had the FDIC allowed a new buyer to step in, Horizon Bank would be costing the FDIC nothing — assuming the bank could be brought back to financial health.

"How," Conoley poses, "is selling the bank at a huge loss better than what I had?"

The Bradenton banker knows how it looks. He's just one more CEO of a failed bank spouting sour grapes, right?

It's partly true. As the former head of a now-failed bank, Conoley knows he's effectively blacklisted from starting a new bank or, probably, finding another financial institution willing to offer him a senior position.

But there's more to it. Conoley's weighing how much of a ruckus he wants to make against a bank regulatory system that, to him, has proved so unfair and inconsistent.

"What is going on is incredibly wrong," he says. "Some banks needed to be closed, but mine did not need to be."

Conoley learned early on Friday that it would be Horizon's last day. Before a bank is seized and handed to the FDIC, a judge must rule the action is appropriate.

"I was very upset," Conoley says. "I know when you go to court on these things, a bank never wins."

Judges typically sign off on seizures in about 15 minutes. Friday's hearing lasted 3 1/2 hours, forcing FDIC staffers to wait most of the afternoon outside Horizon's branches before getting the okay to take over the bank.

"Obviously there was reluctance by the judge in signing the order," Conoley says.

The banker returned to his bank on Saturday to clear out his personal stuff, including his Purdue memorabilia. He'll take a few weeks to rest up and assess his options. But we have not heard the last of him.

"If I have to be the Don Quixote to fight this process, so be it. Everybody gets a mission in life," he says — though this is not one the banker asked for.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Was Bradenton bank's failure, sale premature? 09/13/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 14, 2010 9:47am]
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