CALHOUN, Ga. — Bert Lance, a Georgia banker and ally of former President Jimmy Carter who served as his first budget director before departing amid a high-profile investigation of his banking activities, died on Thursday evening. He was 82.
Lance died at home in northwest Georgia, Gordon County deputy coroner Heath Derryberry said. He said Lance had struggled recently with unspecified health problems, though authorities were unsure of his cause of death.
In a statement, Carter said Lance was one of his closest personal friends and that he was a dependable source of advice on intricate state and national issues.
“Bert Lance was one of the most competent and dedicated public servants I have ever known,” Carter said. “As head of the Department of Transportation in Georgia, he was acknowledged by all the other cabinet level officials as their natural leader, and he quickly acquired the same status in Washington as our nation’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget.”
Carter went on to say that Lance’s “never failing sense of humor and ability to make thousands of friends were just two of the sterling qualities that made knowing Bert such a valuable part of our lives.”
Lance, a bear of a man with thick black hair, a rubbery neck and a distinctive drawl, was a self-described “country banker” who had served as state highway commissioner from 1971 to 1973, when Carter was Georgia governor, and also headed the National Bank of Georgia.
He was widely associated with the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Lance became a protege of Carter’s, and unsuccessfully ran for Georgia governor himself in 1974, as Carter set his sights on The White House. Two years later, Lance was part of the circle of Georgians who followed Carter to Washington after his election as president.
Lance served as the Carter administration’s first OMB director, where he advocated zero-based budgeting. But his career was derailed by what became known as “Lancegate.” He was accused of misappropriating bank money to friends and relatives, leading to a wide-ranging investigation that became a major distraction for the new Democratic administration, especially after Carter had campaigned on moving past the corruption of the Watergate years.
Carter accepted Lance’s resignation in September, 1977, though they remained close friends.
Lance went on trial in 1980 for charges arising from a federal investigation, including conspiracy, misuse of bank funds, false statements to banks and false entries in bank records. He was acquitted of nine charges of bank fraud after a 16-week trial in Atlanta. A federal jury was unable to render verdicts on three other charges and the case ended in a mistrial. The charges were later dismissed.
Among the defense witnesses were Lillian Carter, the then-president’s mother, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., father of the slain civil rights leader. Lance said later that he wasn’t bitter.
Thomas Bertram Lance was born in Gainesville, Ga., in June, 1931, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (http://bit.ly/13oARnu ). His family moved to Calhoun, Ga., where he met his future wife, LaBelle David. The two were married for 63 years and had four sons, one of whom died in 2006.
Lance attended Emory University and the University of Georgia, but dropped out of college just before graduation to support his wife and son as a teller at Calhoun First National Bank and eventually became the bank’s president, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
He used the experience he gained to qualify for graduate-level banking courses at Rutgers University and was instrumental in convincing carpet manufacturers to move their operations to northwest Georgia — considered the carpet manufacturing capital of the world.
After he was cleared of federal charges in 1980, Lance stepped back into politics, serving as chairman of Georgia’s Democratic Party in the early 1980s and briefly as general chairman of Democrat Walter F. Mondale’s 1984 Democratic presidential campaign. He resigned after 19 days, citing the “old charges” leveled against him. He later advised the Rev. Jesse Jackson when the civil rights leader sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988.
The New York Times reports that Lance was removed in 1986 as the chairman and director of the Calhoun bank as part of a settlement of charges of check-kiting and illegal use of bank funds in 1983 and 1984. He was permanently barred from associating with any banking institution and slapped with a $50,000 civil penalty.
The Atlanta newspaper described the folksy, 6-foot, 5-inch Lance as the consummate insider, whether as a lay leader of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church or as an adviser to international financiers.
“He was the kingmaker, rather than the king,” former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes told the newspaper.
In 2000, the state of Georgia renamed a stretch of Interstate 75 in northwest Georgia the “Bert Lance Highway” in recognition of his contributions. A newspaper photo shows Lance looking on pensively.
He told the Rome, Ga. News-Tribune afterward, “I think it’s awfully nice but much undeserved. I’m not entitled to this sort of recognition, but I am glad that I was able to play a small part in I-75 and other developments in the state.”