Ten years ago, they were flying high. Mention Charles Keating, Gary Driggs or Billy Bob Burns and people stopped what they were talking about to listen.
Keating . . . Driggs . . . Burns. They were the town's mandarins.
They lived like princes. They moved about town, almost majestically, as if they were royalty. And well they might, because they had discovered what then seemed to be an endless supply of money.
They were wonderful to have around, because some days they did incredibly arrogant things which made us realize they were really like small children with inflated egos.
One day, Keating called a press conference at the Arizona Press Club, then located in a seedy motel adjacent to the Arizona Republic.
The purpose of the meeting was so Keating could threaten the reporters who showed up that he would take his money out of town unless they stopped writing bad things about him.
Keating put it bluntly. He was spending so much money building hotels and investing in real estate projects that his departure could sink the town's economy.
What Charlie couldn't understand was that he was talking to the wrong people. The reporters didn't care whether he stayed or ran, or how many hotels he built. He should have been talking to the publishers.
Charlie always tended to be just a bit arrogant and a little out of touch with reality.
Now Keating has left town. That, of course, did not come about through any wish of his own. The feds finally ran him down. So now Charlie is a bigger authority about life inside prison than about making money.
For him the life of luxurious homes, dining in only the best restaurants and jetting about in planes operated by his own hired pilots is no more.
Keating's game was halted by a federal court conviction and a jail sentence. Now he is a pathetic figure. He is a solitary figure, fighting off a battalion of government lawyers. He even seems a little gallant, and I'm not quite sure I am ready for that kind of image from him.
But we should never forget what Keating was like when he was top dog, strutting about like a colossus. During the 1980s, he was the closest thing we had to a prince of the city.
Actually, although Keating's profile was highest, he was just one of many speculators who built enormous wealth and cultivated friendships with the social elite during the period.
@body:The social elite, you say? What does that consist of here in Arizona?
Is it a dozen rich Mormons who don't drink and won't spend money when they go out?
Is it Barry Goldwater, who does? Governor J. Fife Symington III, the interloper? Terry Goddard? Certainly it isn't the same old lawyers like Dan Cracchiolo and John P. Frank, or the doctors on the make like Ted Diethrich, the heart surgeon.
Only those who have never been inside the Phoenix or Paradise Valley country clubs would think gaining entrance into such places was worth the selling of your soul. Inside, they are both remarkably mundane and 50 years behind the architectural curve. The food is tasteless.
@body:These days, Keating, who once wore $1,000 suits, dresses in monotonous prison clothes. He dines at a long prison table with men who never made it to Vincent's or Christopher's or even to one of the restaurants in Keating's own hotels.
@body:And what about Gary Driggs, the smooth-talking Mormon? Now 59, he lives quietly at 7510 North Shadow Mountain Road, on the fairway of the Paradise Valley Country Club.
Driggs was indicted recently, accused of committing 25 felonies. All but one of the charges carry a five-year penalty. Someday, Driggs must stand trial here in federal court. But in the meantime, Driggs keeps working as president of Camelback Hotel Corporation. His lifestyle has not diminished.
"What do you do when the world you've lived in for 50 years no longer exists?" Driggs once asked. The answer seems to be that you live very well as long as the money holds out.
At the height of the money madness, Driggs built a $35 million temple as the new home office for his Western Savings & Loan. Location is everything in real estate. So Driggs built it on 24th Street, within a stone's throw of the posh Arizona Biltmore hotel.
In the lobby, there were 7,500 tropical plants, and tall murals of Anasazi Indians decorated the walls.
There were warnings.
Forbes magazine said Western Savings was Driggs' "financial magic show."
Barron's referred to Western's "Evel Knievel lending practices and 'Alice in Wonderland' accounting."
But the Arizona Republic remained loyal. It called Driggs "a visionary."
One day, during construction, Gary became concerned about what his view would be like from his top-floor office. So he went up on a cherry picker to see for himself. He determined that a conference center then being planned would block his view of the Wrigley Mansion.
So they built the conference center at ground level and Gary's view of the plush surrounding area was saved.
Investigators for the Resolution Trust Corporation took one look at the building on 24th Street and dubbed it the "Taj Mahal."
On November 10, 1987, when the offices were opened to the public, 650 of Driggs' closest friends were in attendance.
The RTC now says that the subsequent failure of Western Savings was one of the costliest in the nation. It estimates the bailout will cost taxpayers $2 billion. It says that in 1987 alone, Driggs cashed out more than $4 million in stock options. And the following year, he took another $2 million.
@body:And what of Billy Bob Burns? The financial genius from Coolidge, Arizona, amassed a fortune of $100 million by the time he was 33.
During the height of the real estate wheeling and dealing, Burns bought his double-breasted silk suits and handmade shoes in London, 50 at a time.
Of medium height and with a weak chin, Burns contrived to make his face more interesting by growing a stubbly beard. He married Miss Alabama and moved her into his two huge houses, one of them a 40-acre estate in England.
Here in Arizona, Burns purchased the palatial mansion of Samuel Shoen of U-Haul.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been investigating Burns since 1988, when the land bubble burst. It has been estimated he now owes $250 million, but he continues to pursue business vigorously by routing money through Panama.
For several years after the real estate collapse, Burns profited greatly by paying cash for property which the RTC had foreclosed on.
Congress finally passed a law, now referred to informally as "the Burns law," which prevents people like Burns who owed huge sums of money to failed savings institutions from profiting by such purchases.
Burns, according to the Wall Street Journal's research and other sources, owes $80 million which he borrowed on personal loans from Southwest Savings, Western Savings and MeraBank, here in Phoenix, as well as from American Savings in Salt Lake City. No legal action has been taken as yet on these matters.
The RTC is concentrating its prosecutorial zeal on the executives of the thrift institutions. As a delinquent borrower, Burns has fallen through the cracks so far.
Burns is considered one of the greatest real estate salesmen ever to surface in Arizona.
Last June, the Wall Street Journal cited Burns' most profitable deal. He bought a 4,140-acre hillside parcel from Navistar International Inc. for $20 million, which was considered a bargain.
Burns turned around and sold a half interest in the housing project he planned for the land to Del Webb Corporation at a price that enabled him to pocket an estimated $25 million profit.
He now works out of a spacious office in the Esplanade at 24th Street and Camelback with hand-carved furniture and walls adorned with English hunting prints. An enthusiastic football fan, Burns also has a sky box for the Phoenix Cardinals games at Sun Devil Stadium.
Burns and Driggs were introduced by Dick Willden, a fellow Mormon, who was in the same ward as Driggs. Burns did one of his numbers on Driggs, and the results were not happy for Driggs.
Driggs met with Bill Bliss, an investor who is seeking to recover millions from Burns. The meeting took place in Driggs' office at 6900 East Camelback.
Said Driggs: "Robert Burns is dishonest and a liar. He is the only borrower in all of my years in the savings and loan business that I would like to nuke."
Billy Bob, who prides himself on his charm, would be saddened to hear that. He always considered Driggs a good friend--at least until the loan changed hands.
And this conversation occurred some time after Driggs gave Burns a $26 million line of credit.
It was only at a later date that Driggs learned that Burns had also convinced First Interstate Bank to loan him between $30 million and $60 million, which it also never collected and wrote off as a loss.