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They say the best way to rob a bank is to own one. Michael Wise didn't get away with it, but he acts like he did.
Appearing in U.S. District Court on March 2 for a preliminary hearing on wire-fraud charges, Wise looked like the most well-behaved kid in class. While spectators, including Wise's own sunglass-wearing attorney, slouched on the wooden benches of the hangar-like courtroom, Wise sat at attention in the same gray suit he'd worn to every previous court appearance.
When his case was called, Wise held the gate open for the prosecuting attorney, whose job it is to put him away.
But despite this pleasant demeanor, Wise has been accused over the years of some very unpleasant financial dealings.
Wise first ran into trouble in the late Eighties when, as CEO of Denver's Silverado Savings and Loan, he was charged with bilking bank investors out of more than a million dollars, some of which he used to remodel his house. Considering that the government had to fork over more than a billion dollars to cover Silverado's bad investments of depositors' money, the 1988 fraud charges against Wise were relatively paltry. One attorney observing the 1988 case described the charges as a "traffic ticket."
In her book S&L Hell, author Kathleen Day describes Wise as "a glib go-getter in the world of banking, a champion schmoozer used to getting his way." When Wise flew out to meet with regional S&L regulators in Topeka, Kansas, the regulators--who were supposed to be making sure that all of his dealings were legit--often sent a limousine to pick him up at the airport.
Wise was found not guilty of the 1988 embezzling charges, but the dustup put a temporary crimp in his lifestyle. After his trial, the onetime high-roller was reduced to paying off his lawyers with two sets of sterling silverware. But in 1991 he reappeared in Aspen, where he started another investment company, called Cornerstone of Aspen Ltd. Like Silverado, the company acted as a middleman, matching people who had excess cash with those who needed to borrow it. Despite his tumultuous financial past, Wise managed to drum up business with his charisma--and a public perception that he hadn't been at fault for Silverado's demise.
"Everyone was aware of his past," says one of Wise's former business associates, who asked that his name not be used in this article. "But the consensus was that the guy was very bright and played by the rules but was just a victim of politics with the Silverado deal. A lot of people felt like it was a case of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
The political explanation for Wise's problems stems from the fact that Neil Bush, son of then-vice president George Bush, was a member of Silverado's board of directors. At the time of the country's savings-and-loan disaster--which ended up costing taxpayers more than any other government action outside of war--many critics blamed the Republican administration for the fiasco. During his 1988 presidential campaign, Democrat Michael Dukakis said Bush could have headed off the crisis when he'd been director of the White House task force on financial regulation. "Mr. Bush's inattention will cost tens of billions of dollars," Dukakis charged.
Silverado was a natural target for politicians and regulators who wanted to convince the public that they were doing something--anything--in the face of the multi-billion-dollar government bailout. But like Wise, Neil Bush managed to slip away unscathed, due to what many believed was his father's influence. In fact, the Silverado investigation was held up for two months while George Bush campaigned for president, and it was only on the day after the election that the government finally seized Silverado. In subsequent hearings, there were plenty of memory lapses by government regulators as to who had ordered the delay; by the time the government shut down the bank, Silverado executives had removed or destroyed evidence that could have further incriminated them.
Blaming Silverado's demise on Neil Bush's involvement was justification for many new investors to give Wise a second chance and invest several million dollars in his company.
Cornerstone would provide Anne Slemons with a second chance as well. When Wise's executive assistant quit in November 1997, he asked Slemons to move up from her temp job in the file room and fill in while he looked for a replacement. For a couple of months, the suave Wise and the 22-year-old fugitive hit it off.
"He's very distinguished," says Slemons, "but despite his commanding presence, he was always soft-spoken and quick to smile. He was a hard worker. He'd be in the office at 8 a.m. on the dot, never late, with papers in his hands waiting to be faxed. He always returned phone calls and was always willing to help investors who called."
On the surface, Wise was the consummate businessman--but the FBI contends that as early as 1996 he had already returned to his old tricks. Slemons says she was aware that Wise was stealing from clients, but that didn't diminish her respect for him.
"He really picked me up when I came here from California with just the clothes on my back," Slemons says. "Cornerstone was the only business in the Roaring Fork who would let me work even though I didn't have business attire. I felt loyalty to Mr. Wise because of that. I had two and a half excellent months there, and I worked my behind off for Mr. Wise, because he was someone who gave me a chance to be a decent person."