Rory Brown didn't tolerate dissent — or people who didn't pay him back.
As the chief executive of Lydian Private Bank in Palm Beach, Brown led the institution to astonishing heights but oversaw an equally stunning collapse.
In business for a decade, Brown and the bank churned through top executives and were accused by borrowers and other banks of tricking them into bad deals.
In the most bizarre episode, a California man says the bank hired debt collectors who showed up at his home brandishing guns to force him to sign over the deed to his property.
Shuttered in August 2011, the bank is now the subject of multiple investigations by federal law enforcement agencies, the FDIC says
In lawsuits by investors, the bank was accused of fraudulent and illegal behavior. No one has been charged with a crime, and all but two of eight federal suits against the bank have been settled or dismissed.
In each court filing, attorneys for the bank and its executives denied wrongdoing.
At the center of it all was Brown, who founded Lydian at the end of the technology boom and hoped to create a new type of financial institution: a virtual bank that raised deposits and made loans over the Internet without having to spend millions on brick-and-mortar branches.
For a while, the idea worked.
Lydian grew to $2.1 billion in assets by 2009 and branched out into the lucrative field of "wealth management" by buying a company that provided investment services to multimillionaires.
But the bank's rise was met with criticism.
One lawsuit filed by a former board member claims that Brown fired those who opposed him and sought directors who acted as a "puppet board that would do his bidding."
The FDIC said that Brown once went through four chief financial officers in four years and finally settled on one who was so inexperienced that he repeatedly made basic accounting errors.
Such was the fear among insiders that during an examination in 2008, someone gave regulators an anonymous note saying that several directors had quit because Brown was "mismanaging the finances with irresponsible desperation."
Brown did not return messages left with his attorney and with a former board member. In response to lawsuits, he has claimed that the bank did nothing wrong — it was simply a victim of the Great Recession.
The board was so influenced by Brown, the FDIC said, that it could not even maintain accurate minutes. And it was Brown, examiners said, who pushed the bank toward its riskiest loans — the same type of exotic mortgages that tore apart Wall Street firms at the beginning of the recession.
In one of the suits against Lydian, Provident Funding Associates accused the bank of selling it 24 fraudulent mortgages totaling $5 million.
Documents contained false information about borrowers' employment, income and down payments, Provident said.
The bank denied those claims in court papers. The case was dismissed a year after the FDIC seized Lydian in August 2011.
Other lawsuits accuse the bank of luring borrowers into loans without properly advising them of the true costs, and of purposefully including false and misleading information in loan documents.
Those suits were settled or dismissed.
In December 2009, a California couple defaulted on a loan from Lydian and sued the bank, saying it sent two debt collectors to their home as they were sitting down to eat dinner with guests. The debt collectors told them to sign over the deed to a piece of property and settle up with the bank.
When Charles Elfsten asked the bank's representatives to leave, the suit alleged, the duo brandished guns as a warning.
"While at the home, and in full view of plaintiff Charles Elfsten, defendant Steve LaRoche pulled back his coat and showed and brandished to Mr. Elfsten his firearm, and defendant Terry LaRoche opened her purse and showed and brandished to Mr. Elfsten her firearm," the lawsuit said.
The bank denied these charges in court and the case was dismissed.
The LaRoches did not return a phone message left with a receptionist at their real estate office in Whittier, Calif.
As the bank's fortunes deteriorated, shareholders accused Brown of cutting corners.
In a lawsuit filed in March 2012, investors from New York and Connecticut sued Brown for selling them bank stock based on false information.
The shareholders also presented documents from Lydian's auditor - PriceWaterhouseCoopers - showing that the bank lent $20 million to a South Carolina company in September 2008.
That company used $15 million of the proceeds to purchase stock in the bank. Similar transactions have landed other Florida bankers in jail. Banks are not allowed to lend money to borrowers for the purpose of buying stock a transaction considered a deceptive effort to prop up the lender's flagging finances. In Naples, Orion Bank's chief executive was sentenced to six years in prison for orchestrating a similar deal.
The case remains pending.
Meanwhile, federal regulators found other problems at Lydian and forced the bank to refile several financial reports from 2002 through 2011. It was also ordered to restate its 2008 and 2009 statements because of "aggressive and erroneous accounting methods."