Albert M. Salem Jr. had no banking experience when he took control of First Commercial Bank of Tampa Bay in 2002.
A medical malpractice lawyer, Salem insisted on long days from his employees and punished workers
by slashing their salaries to minimum wage when they gave notice to leave. He also was accused of hiding important information
Salem's management style did not endear him to his employees, but it did help the bank grow quickly. In just four years, First Commercial doubled in size. It had $171 million in assets by 2006.
While employees reported an "almost universal morale problem," regulators were not fond of Salem, either. They said he ignored basic practices and maintained a "secretive" environment meant to keep them in the dark.
No one from the bank has been charged with a crime and Salem would not comment.
First Commercial's success was built on risky loans to developers and speculators, and the bank repeatedly broke the law, regulators found.
It did not do enough to explore the backgrounds of some of its biggest borrowers — including a Tampa investor being investigated by the SEC and another who was the grandson of a New York crime boss and had his own string of arrests.
In July 2007, First Commercial lent $900,000 to a company managed by John Stanton and later boosted that amount to $1.5 million — though Stanton gave only a vague description of how he intended to use the money and had been hit with $1.1 million in liens.
The SEC had also taken action against Stanton for failing to comply with a subpoena. And the property he put forth as collateral was worth as much as 50 percent less than a bank-appointed appraiser claimed, state regulators said in their 2009 report.
Stanton, who was once the biggest pre-cast concrete materials manufacturer in the country, was convicted of tax evasion in 2012 for siphoning $43 million out of his company. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 1.
Then there was Tony Amico, grandson of a Rochester, N.Y., crime boss. Amico was convicted of running an illegal gambling operation in Texas in 1986 and sentenced to probation. He was arrested again in 1988 for allegedly participating in a scheme to provide New York crime families with slot machines, but those charges were dropped, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Despite Amico's history, First Commercial lent him and his partner, Harold J. Seltzer, $7 million at the height of the real estate boom.
They eventually defaulted on that loan and Amico defaulted on $24 million in mortgages from other banks.
Bank insiders told regulators they could not raise questions about similar deals because of Salem's grip. The environment was so poisonous that three bank leaders came forward after the 2008 exam to speak privately with regulators.
They told state officials that Salem ordered them to alter board minutes, and that he brought questionable loans before the board himself — without consulting other key employees.
Another manager told regulators that Salem blocked her from sending demand letters to borrowers who fell behind on payments because those people were his friends.
"Salem is not a banker," Lee Ceislak, First Commercial's president, told regulators in 2009, "and his lack of leadership has been counterproductive to the bank."