Bert Lance, a Georgia banker and close ally of former President Jimmy Carter who served as his first budget director before departing amid a high-profile investigation of his former bank’s lending practices, died on Thursday evening. He was 82.
Lance died in northwest Georgia, Gordon County deputy coroner Heath Derryberry said. He said Lance had struggled recently with unspecified health problems, though authorities were unsure of his cause of death.
In a statement, Carter said Lance was one of his closest personal friends and that he was a dependable source of advice on intricate state and national issues.
“Bert Lance was one of the most competent and dedicated public servants I have ever known,” Carter said. “As head of the Department of Transportation in Georgia, he was acknowledged by all the other cabinet level officials as their natural leader, and he quickly acquired the same status in Washington as our nation’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget.”
Carter went on to say that Lance’s “never failing sense of humor and ability to make thousands of friends were just two of the sterling qualities that made knowing Bert such a valuable part of our lives.”
Lance, a bear of a man with thick black hair, a rubbery neck and a distinctive drawl, was a self-described “country banker” who had headed the National Bank of Georgia.
Lance was widely credited with coining the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
He became a protege of Carter’s, and was part of the network of Georgians who followed the Man from Plains to Washington after his election in 1976.
Lance served as the Carter administration’s first OMB director, but his career was derailed by what became known as “Lancegate.” He was accused of misappropriating bank money to friends and relatives, leading to a wide-ranging investigation that became a major distraction for the new administration.
Carter stood by Lance, then “reluctantly accepted” his resignation in September, 1977.
Lance went on trial in 1980 for charges arising from the investigation, including misuse of bank funds, making false entries in bank records and making a false statement to a bank. But a federal jury was unable to render a verdict and the case ended in a mistrial. The charges were later dismissed.
Thomas Bertram Lance was born in Gainesville, Ga., in June, 1931, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (http://bit.ly/13oARnu ). His family moved to Calhoun, Ga., where he met his future wife, LaBelle David. The couple would be married 63 years and have four sons, one of whom died in 2006.
He dropped out of college just before graduation to support his wife and son as a teller at Calhoun First National Bank and eventually became the bank’s president, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. He used the experience he gained to qualify for graduate-level banking courses at Rutgers University and was instrumental in convincing carpet manufacturers to move their operations to northwest Georgia — which was considered the carpet manufacturing capital of the world.
After his time with the Georgia Department of Transportation and his stint in Carter’s cabinet, Lance chaired Georgia’s Democratic Party in the early 1980s.
The newspaper described him as the consummate insider, whether as a lay leader of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church or as an adviser to international financiers.
“He was the kingmaker, rather than the king,” former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes told the Journal-Constitution.
In 2000, the state of Georgia renamed a stretch of Interstate 75 in northwest Georgia the “Bert Lance Highway” in recognition of his contributions. A newspaper photo shows Lance looking on pensively.
He told the Rome, Ga. News-Tribune afterward, “I think it’s awfully nice but much undeserved. I’m not entitled to this sort of recognition, but I am glad that I was able to play a small part in I-75 and other developments in the state.”
Associated Press writer Phillip Lucas in Atlanta contributed to this report.