NEW YORK — Bert Lance, a small-town Georgia banker who became the preeminent adviser and tennis-playing confidant to Jimmy Carter but was forced to resign after eight months as director of the Office of Management and Budget because of accusations that he had personally traded on his ties with the president, died Thursday in Georgia. He was 82.
His death was confirmed in a statement from Carter, who called him “one of the most competent and dedicated public servants I have ever known.’’
Mr. Lance died at home near Calhoun, Ga., Thursday evening, said the Gordon County deputy coroner, Heath Derryberry. The cause was not immediately known, Derryberry said, but Mr. Lance had been in failing health and was receiving hospice care.
Cleared of wrongdoing in 1980 after a highly publicized bank fraud trial in Atlanta, Mr. Lance resumed his business career in Georgia, insisting that he held no animosity toward the officials and journalists who had pursued him.
Although friends said he longed for redemption, Mr. Lance, who often prayed with Carter, declared that “bitterness breeds destruction.’’
Mr. Lance’s troubles during his brief Washington tenure were a blow to the new administration, which took office in 1977 after campaigning as an antidote to the Watergate era. His departure meant the loss of an important bridge to the business community and a voice counseling restraint of the populist tendencies elsewhere in the administration.
Later, Mr. Lance was indicted and subsequently cleared in the financial scandal involving the shuttered Bank of Credit and Commerce International, for which he served as a consultant after selling his controlling interest in the National Bank of Georgia to an Arab business associate of the BCCI president.
Nor did he abandon political life. He became chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party in 1982 and chairman of the 1984 presidential campaign of Walter F. Mondale after Mondale was reportedly talked out of making him the vice presidential nominee, turning instead to Geraldine A. Ferraro. In 1988, Mr. Lance served as a top adviser to his friend the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who sought the party’s presidential nomination.
He was also something of a phrase maker, widely associated with an expression that has persisted in American culture: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’’
At the budget office, Mr. Lance, the first person chosen by the president-elect for a Cabinet-level post, advocated a device called zero-based budgeting, in which each budget item has to be freshly justified each year before it is approved, rather than subjected only to financial adjustment. Although he succeeded in rolling back some spending proposals, zero-based budgeting failed to catch on, and the goal of balancing the budget by the end of the Carter presidency went unachieved.
Thomas Bertram Lance was born June 3, 1931. His father was president of Young Harris College, a small Methodist institution in Georgia. Young Mr. Lance attended Emory University and the University of Georgia but under financial pressure to support his wife, the former LaBelle David, whom he had married in 1950 at age 19, and their newborn son, he dropped out shortly before he would have graduated.
He took a job as a $90-a-month teller at the Calhoun First National Bank, which had been founded by his wife’s grandfather. He and some associates bought control of the bank in 1958, and five years later Mr. Lance had risen to chief executive.
The bank, with acquisitions and easy financing that lured some carpet manufacturers to Calhoun from nearby Dalton, grew rapidly, and Mr. Lance became acquainted with Carter at a regional planning meeting.
After one unsuccessful run for governor, for which Mr. Lance generated business support, Carter was elected in 1970 and promptly named Mr. Lance director of the state’s crony-ridden and inefficient Highway Department. Mr. Lance set about reorganizing it, and within six years, the department had tripled the volume of contracts it let, with a staff that had shrunk by 26 percent.
When Carter’s term neared its constitutional end, Mr. Lance failed in a bid to succeed him, finishing third in the primary race.
Then, with two associates, Mr. Lance acquired control of the National Bank of Georgia, where as president he applied his folksy touch by mingling with ordinary customers and appearing in bank commercials.
The bank thrived, but ultimately his millions of dollars’ worth of shares in it contributed to his political undoing when the stock — placed in a trust on his appointment in Carter’s administration — tumbled. Mr. Lance persuaded the president to ask the Senate committee that had confirmed him to extend the period during which Mr. Lance had agreed to sell the stock.
Close scrutiny soon led to other charges that while a bank stockholder he had lobbied against a congressional measure to require loan priority for local communities and allegations that he used his position to obtain a sweetheart loan from the First National Bank of Chicago by placing some of the Georgia bank’s money in an account paying no interest. Another issue was use of a corporate plane to attend University of Georgia football games.
Mr. Lance denied the allegations and appeared to have survived grilling by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which granted his plea for more time to sell his stock, and a detailed investigation by the comptroller of the currency, which concluded that he had done nothing illegal.
But after this apparent exoneration and a vote of confidence by Carter — he stated in a press conference that he was proud of his budget director — critics seized on specific items that the comptroller considered unsound, like poorly secured loans to bank officers and their relatives.
The committee sought to investigate these and other charges, including Carter’s use of a bank plane years earlier and Mr. Lance’s role in preventing the Justice Department from examining whether the Calhoun bank had helped finance Mr. Lance’s 1974 campaign for governor.
Once again Mr. Lance appeared before the committee, accusing members of denying him due process and leading some to think he might survive.
But the political heat was overwhelming and an exhausted Mr. Lance resigned and returned to Georgia. Two years later, he was indicted on conspiracy charges and a dozen counts of banking irregularity in the BCCI affair, none of which resulted in a conviction.
When the Calhoun bank balked at paying some of his legal expenses, Mr. Lance began and won a fierce proxy fight, installed two sons as directors, and reemerged as an influential area banker.
In 1986, the government removed him as chairman and director, permanently barred him from association with any banking institution, and levied a $50,000 civil penalty as part of a settlement of charges of check-kiting and illegal use of Calhoun bank funds in 1983 and 1984.
He leaves his wife.
Despite his checkered career, Mr. Lance retained the affection of many. In 2000, Mr. Lance drew a large crowd of dignitaries and other fellow Georgians to the unveiling of a sign on Interstate 75 in Resaca, Ga., declaring a stretch of it Bert Lance Highway.