on April 26, 2014 - 5:57 PM
, updated April 26, 2014 at 6:30 PM
Michael A. “Mick” Whipple was a rising star at M&T Bank in Buffalo, a top loan officer who helped local businesses grow by lending them millions of dollars.
The 41-year-old Buffalo native worked at M&T for almost two decades, winning many achievement awards, and four years ago was promoted to a vice president in the bank’s business banking section. According to a Whipple biography posted on the zoominfo.com website, he oversaw a small-business loan portfolio of $150 million.
But something went terribly wrong with Whipple’s career last year. He was fired after allegations that he had arranged millions of dollars of fraudulent loans to struggling local businesses that – under normal M&T bank procedures – should not have qualified for loans.
The FBI and a top local attorney hired by the bank are now investigating about $5 million in loans Whipple arranged, according to six business and law enforcement sources who are familiar with the case. No criminal charges have been filed but the federal probe is continuing.
Just as perplexing as how the loans occurred is why. Investigators so far have found no evidence that Whipple received financial benefits for arranging the loans.
The case also raises questions about loan procedures and checks-and-balances at M&T, the nation’s 16th-largest commercial bank.
Whipple’s improper loan activities were far out of step with the bank’s approved procedures, and yet the loans went on for about five years before bank officials detected something was wrong and notified federal authorities late last year, sources close to the case told The News.
Whipple declined to comment for this story, but his attorney, Rodney O. Personius, confirmed that Whipple is aware of the investigations and is cooperating with the FBI and bank investigators.
“Mick has endeavored to be fully cooperative with the bank and with federal authorities. He will continue to do so while we await the outcome of these investigations,” Personius said. “He knows he did wrong and is devastated by it, but his over-arching goal was always to help local companies, not to benefit himself.”
Some people who know Whipple have described him as a “Robin Hood” figure who risked his career to help struggling companies stay in business.
“I have heard that term ‘Robin Hood’ used. I can only tell you that, from everything I can determine, Mick did not receive any financial benefit for these loans,” Personius said.
Two of the six sources familiar with the case suggested that Whipple may have been trying to save himself from embarrassment in the banking community by helping companies he worked with avoid defaulting on previous loans that he had arranged.
“He did not go into this with the intention of committing crimes … but he got in over his head, and had to get money to help keep these companies afloat,” one source said.
M&T has hired Daniel C. Oliverio, one of the region’s most high-profile attorneys, to head its investigation into Whipple’s loan activity. Oliverio, a former federal prosecutor, is chairman of the Hodgson Russ law firm, one of the oldest and largest in Buffalo. Oliverio declined to comment on the Whipple probe, advising a reporter to contact the bank.
Janet M. Coletti, a senior vice president at M&T, and C. Michael Zabel, manager of corporate communications, said bank officials were saddened and disappointed by Whipple’s actions because he was well-liked and trusted by his colleagues.
At the same time, Zabel said the bank views Whipple’s wrongdoing as a “very serious matter.” He confirmed that the bank is conducting its own investigation while “cooperating fully” with the FBI probe.
“We’ve never experienced a situation quite like this before,” Zabel said. “We acted immediately when this came to our attention, both to understand what happened and to mitigate any possibility of this ever happening again.”
Who is Mick Whipple?
Why would a prominent banker risk his job, his reputation and perhaps even his personal freedom for a loan scam for which he allegedly never pocketed a dime?
“He loves Buffalo and wanted to help Buffalo companies. Some of the companies he got loans for might have had to close their doors if he didn’t help them,” Personius said.
The attorney described Whipple as a married father of three who has been extensively involved with his church and volunteer activities. He does not use drugs, gamble or enjoy an extravagant lifestyle, Personius said.
Several other sources with close knowledge of the case said they concurred.
Whipple and his family live in an Amherst home they bought in 2005 for $175,000, Erie County records show.
“From everything we can see at this point, this guy didn’t get one dime for arranging these loans,” said one person who is familiar with the investigations aimed at Whipple.
Investigators are still trying to make sure that perception is accurate.
Meanwhile, people who know Whipple are baffled and upset over his situation. In addition to being a rising star in the banking community, the Canisius College and University at Buffalo graduate has been active in church and charity activities.
He coached youth basketball teams and served as chairman – leading hundreds of volunteers – on the 2010 Catholic Charities Appeal.
He formerly served on the board of trustees at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and at the Amherst Chamber of Commerce. He also was 2010 chairman of the Porter Cup in Niagara Falls, one of the nation’s most prestigious amateur golf tournaments.
Whipple and his wife, Andrea, have been volunteers for years at Christ the King Catholic Church in Amherst.
“I have known Mick for many years, and I love him. He’s got a legion of people in this community who think the world of him,” said William M. Collins, co-founder of the Travers Collins public relations/advertising firm.
Investigators are closely examining Whipple’s loans to about 10 local companies, knowledgeable sources said.
Most of these companies experienced some serious financial difficulties and would not – if proper procedures were followed – be considered creditworthy for the loans Whipple got them, the sources said.
False documents were filed with the bank in order to ensure the loans got approved, these sources said.
One of the companies that received a loan now under review is Regional Integrated Logistics, a Buffalo transportation company. Whipple had arranged millions of dollars in financing for the company over several years, said Robert Bingel, chief executive officer.
“He was our banker for more than 10 years. He really seemed like a guy who cared about your business and wanted to make it grow,” Bingel said. “Last fall, I tried to reach Mick about something, and he never got back to me, which was not like him. It was like he dropped off the face of the earth. Then, in December, I got a call from someone at the bank who told me Mick was no longer with them.”
After that, Bingel said, investigators for the bank arrived at his company and went over every detail of the loans. No one from the bank ever explained why Whipple was fired, he said.
“Whatever it is, I can see that it’s not a good situation,” Bingel said.
Bingel said he never had any inkling that Whipple was involved in anything improper. Whipple always gave him the impression that he needed approval from his superiors to get loans, he added.
A financial dispute with a landlord led Regional Integrated Logistics to file for protection from creditors in U.S. Bankruptcy Court last year, Bingel said. But the financial problem has been addressed, and his company is no longer in Bankruptcy Court, he added.
While The News learned that Regional Integrated Logistics is one of the companies that got loans, the sources would not reveal any of the other companies.
There is no indication that anyone who worked for any of the companies that received the fraudulent loans had any knowledge that anything was wrong, the sources said.
The Whipple case is considered an embarrassment for Buffalo-based M&T Bank, which employs 6,000 people and is one of the largest employers in Western New York. The bank has $88 billion in assets.
While the bank is deeply concerned about Whipple’s actions, the fraudulent loans comprise a tiny percentage of M&T’s $5 billion small-business loan portfolio, said Zabel, the bank’s public relations chief.
The bank was the only victim that lost any money from the loan fraud, Zabel said.
“We are sorry that some of our customers were inconvenienced by our investigations, but none of them lost money,” he said.
Were any other bank employees either fired, suspended or disciplined for failing to detect for years that something was wrong with some of the Whipple loans?
Zabel and Coletti said that they could not comment, citing a bank policy not to discuss personnel matters publicly.
When asked if the Whipple case led to any changes in the bank’s policies or procedures, Zabel responded that he could only say that the bank is conducting an audit with the intent of preventing future problems.
Personius, Whipple’s attorney, said no one else at M&T knowingly took part in any loan frauds with his client.
“No one else was complicit,” the attorney said.
Federal officials were tight-lipped about the case.
Trini E. Ross, chief of the fraud and corruption section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Buffalo, said she could not comment on the Whipple case, or even confirm that such a case exists.
Maureen Dempsey, spokeswoman for the Buffalo FBI office, also declined to confirm or deny any information about Whipple.
Despite the fact that Whipple’s firing was not publicly disclosed, many people in the banking and business community appear to know bits and pieces of Whipple’s situation, and it all mystifies many of the people who know him best.
Collins, the public relations executive who worked with Whipple in Catholic Charities, said he called Whipple and met him for coffee last year after hearing that the banker was about to lose his job and was in some kind of trouble.
“We sat and talked, and Mick told me that he had made some mistakes, and that he’d spent hours and hours telling the bank everything he knew,” Collins recalled.
Collins said he doesn’t know what Whipple did, but hopes it does not put his friend behind bars.
“I don’t know the specifics,” Collins said. “I just hope that, when you look at Mick’s life and his whole body of work, compared that whatever he may be accused of doing, I hope his good works count for something.”
News Staff Reporter Phil Fairbanks contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org