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Welcome To Corruptville, Certus




Certus Bank should feel right at home in “famously hot” Columbia, South Carolina …

Seriously … what better location is there for a financial institution that’s reeling from a major scandal? Columbia is scandal, people …

Anyway, we can’t wait to see Certus’ executives cut the “virtual” ribbon on their lavish bank branch at the corner of Lady and Main Streets next month … with Da Mayorhood (a.k.a. Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin) and a supplicant press corps lined up to pay homage to this gleaming new facility.

We’re sure The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper will give them a nice advertorial … same with WIS TV 10, which will no doubt feature extensive video coverage of the branch’s glittering, high-tech interior.

Yet while Certus’ branch may look like a high-end Apple store at first glance … behind the bells and whistles is a badly mismanaged institution that is hemorrhaging cash.

“Over the past two years, more than $100 million of equity capital has been erased in the most baseless and irresponsible way – by spending exorbitantly on personal excess masked as corporate expense,” a New York hedge fund manager wrote of Certus in a March 5 letter obtained by American Banker. “This can go on no longer.”

The American Banker story – a brilliant piece of investigative journalism – lays out in meticulous detail how Certus planned to “form a company that would buy failed banks along a corridor of Interstate 85 running from North Carolina through Georgia,” using “abundant government assistance” to make its purchases.

How abundant? According to American Banker, Certus received $241 million from the FDIC from 2009-11 to support its bank purchases.

Thanks to this largesse, the bank had a bright future ahead of it … or so it appeared.

Rather than doing the hard work of turning around these troubled banks, though, Certus executives endeavored to live high on the hog.

How high?

“In August 2012, the bank bought three apartments in Greenville, S.C., for about $500,000 each,” American Banker reports.

The bank then spent “nearly $1 million more in 2012 to improve and decorate the three apartments,” which were used by Certus’ top executives. Among the additions were $24,000 worth of electronics and a $12,000 wine cellar. The bank has also spent exorbitantly on travel for its top brass – $347,000 on private plane flights – as well as a $1 million art collection.

“They laid off employees on Christmas Eve while sipping champagne in their limousines,” one source familiar with the bank’s activities told FITS.

Wow …

Then there are allegations of corruption involving assets bank officials received at dramatically discounted prices – assets which were promptly offered for sale at market value (like a $13,488 Toyota 4Runner that a bank executive purchased from the company for $300).

Add it all up and the bank is facing a rapidly deteriorating financial situation. Last year, Certus racked up $146 million in non-interest expenses – posting an $83 million pretax loss. Two years earlier, Certus’ non-interest expenses were “only” $60 million but it posted pretax income of nearly $100 million.

That’s quite a turnaround …

Bottom line? Think twice before you put your money in this bank …