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Fernand St Germain, Legislator Tied to S.&L. Crisis, Dies at 86
Published at 22 August 2014, 10:11 GMT

Fernand St Germain, a 14-term Rhode Island congressman who was chairman of the House banking committee before the savings and loan crisis exploded, and who lost his seat after drawing attention for his ties to the industry he had helped deregulate, died on Saturday at his summer home in Newport, R.I. He was 86. The cause was kidney failure, his daughter Laurene Sorensen said.

By the time Mr. St Germain, a Democrat, became the chairman of the Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs in 1981, he was a veteran of Congress who dexterously worked Washington’s power levers behind the scenes and was beloved at home for bringing federal funds to Rhode Island. “If you like old-fashioned, kind of tough, not always the cleanest but very efficient politicians, he’s your guy,” James A. Morone Jr., a longtime political science professor at Brown University, said in an interview.

In 1983, Mr. St Germain helped broker a deal that won Democratic votes for an $8.4 billion appropriation for the International Monetary Fund — a priority for President Ronald Reagan — by tying it to a $15.6 billion housing measure.

“You can call me landslide Freddy,” Mr. St Germain said after the I.M.F. measure passed the House by a narrow margin.

But his most famous legislative victory marred his political legacy. In 1982, Mr. St Germain, along with Senator Jake Garn of Utah, a Republican, sponsored a bill that was intended to shore up ailing savings and loan associations, midsize institutions that were primarily in the business of offering mortgages.

The bill broadened their investment and lending powers, allowing them in effect to take bigger risks. Before he signed it, President Reagan called the bill “the first step in our administration’s comprehensive program of financial deregulation.”

But the newly empowered savings and loans overextended themselves, and more than 1,000 went under in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A bailout cost taxpayers $124.6 billion at the time, according to the government.

“It was giant Ponzi scheme, it all collapsed, and it can be traced directly to this deregulation,” Professor Morone said.

While in office, Mr. St Germain received loans, amassed real estate holdings and even bought a small group of International House of Pancakes restaurants. In 1985, an investigation by The Wall Street Journal suggested that he and his associates in a variety of business deals had benefited from his political influence.

The Department of Justice and the House ethics committee opened investigations. The committee found that he had inaccurately reported some financial transactions and improperly accepted travel paid for by a Florida bank, but did not take further action. The Justice Department declined to press criminal charges.

Still, the inquiries provided fuel for his critics. In 1988, he fought off a tough primary challenge before losing the general election to Ronald K. Machtley, a Republican lawyer who campaigned with a live pig named Les Pork — a gibe at Mr. St Germain’s skill at bringing home federal funds that was also seen as comment on his ethics.
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The loss was crushing for a man who kept his phone number listed while in office and instructed his daughters to take detailed messages of constituent concerns if he was not home. “It was like a death in the family,” Ms. Sorensen said. “He really grieved.”

Fernand Joseph St Germain — he long insisted there ought to be no period after the “St” in his last name because he was no saint — was born Jan. 9, 1928, in Blackstone, Mass., and grew up in Woonsocket, R.I., a mill town where his father was a textile worker. He attended a seminary high school in Rhode Island because his mother wanted him to be a priest, but later enrolled in Providence College, graduating in 1948.

Mr. St Germain attended Boston University Law School and graduated in 1955, but not before winning a seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives at age 24. After leaving Congress, he worked briefly as a lobbyist and then for a telecommunications firm and moved his primary residence to Florida. He retired in 1999. His wife, Rachel M. O’Neill, died in 1998. Besides Ms. Sorensen, he is survived by another daughter, Lisette Saint Germain, and a sister, Claire Velardi.
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