The Time I Was Marooned In Ann Arbor With Marvin Warner For Two Months

Feb 15, 2019

If I never set foot in Ann Arbor, Michigan, again, it will be too soon.

No, it's not some kind of Ohio State Buckeye thing, where the Buckeye fans won't even say the name of their hated rivals, the Wolverines of the University of Michigan.

Rather than even allow their lips to form the word Michigan, Buckeye fans refer to it as that school up north.

It's not that at all. I don't have a dog in that hunt.

No, it's a matter of what I had to do to cover the 1987 federal criminal trial of Cincinnati financier Marvin L. Warner, who was once one of the most powerful men in Ohio business and politics.

I had to spend nearly seven weeks in May and June of that year shuttling back and forth between Cincinnati and Ann Arbor to spend my days in a federal courtroom and my nights in a dreary Holiday Inn downtown.

It was not fun, although I did manage to entertain myself, as you will see later.

But he was the central figure in one of the biggest financial disasters in history, one which resulted in the collapse of his Home State Savings Bank, a temporary shutdown of all savings and loans in Ohio, and damage done to investors in the bonds Warner's associates at a Ft. Lauderdale firm called ESM Government Securities Inc., which sold what turned out to be fraudulent bonds to local governments all over the country, institutions and individual investors.

I realize there are probably many reading this column who were not in Ohio when the savings and loans crisis hit in March 1985, or are too young to remember. Some were watching Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood back then rather than the 1987 state and federal criminal trials of Marvin Warner.

Trust me, Marvin Warner was no Mr. Rogers.

Marvin L. Warner in 1987.
Credit Al Behrman / AP

He was a tough, hard-nosed businessman – a self-made businessman with humble beginnings as the son of a Jewish baker in Birmingham, Alabama. He came north as a young man, got into the development business with a man named Joe Kanter. Together, they developed what is now the city of Forest Park, and a host of other development projects in the Cincinnati area.

And, of course, he created Home State Savings and Loan.

He became a very wealthy man. And politicians are often attracted to very wealthy men. He became a gold mine of campaign contributions, mostly for his fellow Democrats. Former Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste was one of his favorites.

Some people thought he might run for governor himself some day.

I asked him about it once.

H'ard, (that's how he pronounced my name in that thick Alabama drawl) I don't have to run for governor. I know people.

And he gave me a wink.

The unspoken word was that he had the jack to buy any politician he wanted.

President Jimmy Carter appointed Warner ambassador to Switzerland, an office he served in from 1977 to 1981. As you might imagine, there was little heavy lifting involved in being the ambassador to Switzerland.

In the early '70s, he was one of 13 part-owners of the New York Yankees, and he had ownership interests in two professional football teams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Birmingham Stallions.

He raised thoroughbred horses on his farms in Clermont County and Ocala, Florida.

He had the world by the tail.

And then he met Ronnie Ewton of ESM.

Warner was convinced to invest millions of dollars – his customers' savings – to help finance ESM's bond sales.

ESM was sending out financial statements to its clients painting a rosy picture, but, in fact, it was deeply in debt.

When the scheme collapsed, so too did Home State. Home State's losses completely wiped out the state's savings and loan insurance fund, which meant that every person with money in any savings and loan in Ohio was in jeopardy.

Celeste was forced to shut down the state's saving banks for a time while the legislature worked on stabilizing the insurance fund.

Long story short: Warner and some of his associates were tried in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court in early 1987 on a variety of fraud-related charges. The jury deliberated for nine days and found Warner guilty. Judge Richard Niehaus sentenced him to three-and-a-half years in prison, which Warner immediately appealed.

He lost the appeal, and eventually ended up spending two years and four months in state prison.

I was the back-up reporter on that state trial; my friend and colleague Karen Garloch was the lead reporter.

When Karen left to become a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, the main responsibility for Warner dropped in my lap.

He faced a federal criminal trial on 18 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud and the "interstate movement of fraudulently obtained funds."

The trial started in May. It ended in late June.

There were only two Cincinnati reporters there for the whole trial – me and the late Sharon Moloney, a rival reporter from the Cincinnati Post who was also a good friend.

We were both trapped in the Holiday Inn and we ended up eating most meals together and commiserating about how miserable we were.

Here was my weekly schedule:

  • On Sunday morning, I would pack up and drive the 250 miles north to Ann Arbor.
  • On Friday, after I had filed my stories for the day, I got back in the car and drove home to Cincinnati.
  • On Saturday, I did my laundry and re-packed my bags.
  • On Sunday, I would hit the road again.

I repeated this process seven times. That's about 3,500 miles in the car, through western Ohio and southern Michigan.

On week nights, Sharon tended to stay in her room and read books. I did too, on many nights, but there were others when I was climbing the walls of my Holiday Inn room and had to get out.  

Then I struck upon a brilliant plan. Detroit was nearby. Only 44 miles from Ann Arbor.

I would check the baseball schedules and see if the Detroit Tigers were in town and I would head to Tiger Stadium and buy a single ticket.

Several times I got very lucky, and bought a seat in the first row of the upper deck. Old Tiger Stadium – replaced by Comerica Park long ago – had very little foul territory behind home plate. From my perch in the front row, I felt like I was looking directly down on home plate.

Some of the best seats I've ever had in a ball park.

Later, I asked Ron Wild, the Enquirer's newsroom business manager at the time, if it was OK that I put my Tiger Stadium expenses on my expense report.

Of course it is, Ron said. Right there, it says 'entertainment.' We don't expect you to go up there for weeks and weeks and do nothing but sit in a hotel room. Enjoy yourself.

When he said that, it was off to the races. I think I saw half a dozen Tiger games against various opponents during the Warner trial. I'm sure I have the scorecards stashed away somewhere.

But, actually, we were all, for the most part, prisoners of Ann Arbor – prosecutors, defense lawyers, Marvin and his wife Jody, the Warner siblings.

Naturally, there would be a lunch break every day.

We all tended to eat in the same restaurant, one just down the street from the federal courthouse.

Sharon and I would sit at one table; the Warners at another. The prosecutors had their own table.

One day, Sharon and I were sitting there looking at menus, when Marvin walked by.

H'ard, you need to try that bean soup. Getcha a bunch of chopped onions to put in it. And a big ol' hunk of cornbread. It's goooood!

Well, I took his advice and it was the best bean soup I have had, before or since. I think I ordered it every day after that.

This, of course, was in a day before Al Gore had invented the Internet, so Warner and the prosecutors could not go online to see what Sharon and I were writing for our readers back home.

But, every morning, Marvin would call his secretary back in Cincinnati and have her read my story to him.

One day, just before court re-convened, Warner came charging up to me in the hall, snorting like a bull.

H'ard, what the hell do you mean by that headline on that story? That's just wrong. I want a retraction! You know better than that! What are you trying to do to me!

I can't remember what the story was, but once he had cooled down a bit, I explained to him that I didn't know what he was talking about, because newspaper reporters don't write their own headlines. Some copy editor does that at night. Sharon told him that, yes, that is right. Reporters don't write headlines.

He started to calm down; the red drained out of his face.

Well, H'ard, I didn't know that. I'll be. I guess I ought to be talking to your editor.

Then he laid this one on me:

You know, H'ard, I should have bought that damn newspaper of yours when I had a chance!

The picture in my head of Marvin Warner owning my newspaper actually made me quiver.

Finally, the two sides made their closing arguments on a Monday morning. Judge Charles Joiner gave the jury their instructions and they left the courtroom to deliberate.

The jurors squeezed one more lunch out of it, but about 2 p.m. – after only three hours of deliberation – they came out and delivered a verdict: Not guilty on all counts.

This day, Sharon and I were not alone. A lot of broadcast and print reporters had shown up, knowing a verdict was coming.

Marvin, choking back tears, came out in front of the media on the front steps of the courthouse, with his wife Jody at his side and his grown children. His daughter, Alyson, was sobbing in joy and relief.

"These 12 people are the most important people in my life, next to my family,'' Warner said of the jurors, many of whom were also on the steps of the courthouse.

Jody, who was a lawyer herself, told me that "this absolutely proves that the case in Cincinnati could not have been fair. It shows what an unbiased jury can do."

William Jeffress, Warner's lead attorney, said that it took the jury in Cincinnati nine days to find his client guilty.

"But we bring this case to a city other than Cincinnati and the jury takes three hours to decide it,'' Jeffress said. 

Jeffress said he would use that fact in the appeal of Warner's state conviction – which would ultimately fail to keep him out of prison.

Marvin and Jody hugged many of the jurors as they came outside, their duty done.

I went back to the Holiday Inn and knocked out no fewer than six stories – a main story and sidebars – for the next day's newspaper.

That night, I was told, the Warners had a little party in their hotel for the jurors who wanted to attend.

By that time, though, I was on the road back to Cincinnati. And I wouldn't be coming back.

I was done with Ann Arbor for good.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Tales from the Trail" here