A few years back, right at the time Fifth Third (FITB) gobbled up Old Kent, I had this to say about one of local bigwig Peter Secchia’s public musings: “Commenting on the unfolding disgrace of boardroom thievery in Corporate America, former Ambassador Peter Secchia wants us to know that he thinks these crooks should be thrown in jail. … Let us hope that the Ambassador, who was a director of Old Kent Bank, is just as demanding when the role played by bank insiders in the 25-million-dollar Toxic Towers fiasco comes to light.”
Since then the sewage continues to spill from Fifth Third’s acquisition of Old Kent. Even if regulators haven’t been on their toes, the market has delivered its punishment to the big bank from Cincinnati by knocking the hype out of Fifth Third’s sleaze-inflated shares. Meanwhile, many Fifth Third top executives have fallen on their swords to keep the ruin of scandal at bay. But one man, who perhaps did the most to keep the skeletons of the Old Kent takeover in the closet, has instead been crowned heir-apparent to succeed George Schaeffer, the ringmaster of Fifth Third’s go-go years, as head honcho of the bank.
That man is Kevin Kabat, an Old Kent executive who made the transition to Fifth Third. Kabat was instrumental in squelching a lawsuit that key Old Kent shareholders wanted to bring to remedy the malfeasance of top management that made the bank ripe for takeover by Fifth Third. As it happens Kabat was a colleague of Secchia’s. So, I must think that Secchia has some inkling of the troubles that forced Old Kent into the maw of Fifth Third, Fifth Third’s subsequent mismanagement of the takeover, and Kabat’s role in all of this. Therefore, I am more than a little disappointed that the Ambassador is publicly silent about local boardroom thievery, especially the crookedness that destroyed one of the great business institutions of Grand Rapids.
So why bring all of this up now? On Wednesday, June 28th, Secchia appeared on TV-13 news to announce that “Grand Rapids is without corruption or scandal.” Well, yes, the Ambassador is a hometown booster in a most agreeable old-fashioned way, and God bless him for that. But anyone who truly loves River City cannot turn a blind eye to the rot that will consume this town if not exposed. Not only is there the Fifth Third scandal, there is the obstruction of justice by prominent citizens that thwarted the investigation of twenty-thousand tons of hazardous waste dumped in a residential neighborhood, there is a medical examiner who has botched autopsies in favor of a major business client he has on the side, there is an alleged billionaire who financed the work-out of his failed empire on the backs of local taxpayers and healthcare ratepayers, there is the family of his late partner who looted the private foundation that provided most of the support to the Van Andel Institute, and so on.
These blights impede the progress of our city. As ordinary citizens we can remove the stains by speaking up, pulling the right levers in the voting booth, and withholding our donations from dubious projects. However, we can clean up River City even quicker when citizens of Secchia’s stature also speak up. Eyes wide open is the best sort of boosterism.