WASHINGTON - Gerald M. Stern bested Charles Keating, Don Dixon, and Swaleh Nagvi. But after five years of prosecuting crooks, the Justice Department's special counsel for financial-institutions fraud closed down his office last week.

Mr. Stern's unit defeated almost all of its 6,405 defendants - one of the largest prosecution efforts in the department's history - convicting 97.5% of the officers and directors and 95.1% of the chief executives and presidents charged with financial fraud.

In 1989, Congress specifically limited the life of the office, which means Mr. Stern will not have a successor. With his departure, the Justice Department closes the book on the financial-fraud crisis that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Banking industry observers said it's about time.

"It was important to publicly go after the crooks," said Ronald Glancz, a partner at Venable, Baetjer, Howard & Civiletti. "But it was very difficult for the good guys to do business because they were tarred and feathered with the same brush."

In a 77-page report summing up his work, Mr. Stern said the department imposed $44.7 million in fines while officers were forced to pay $2.9 billion in restitution.

The number of prosecutions grew steadily from 266 in 1989 to 1,185 in 1992, declining gradually to 587 this year. Mr. Stern noted that 30% of the convictions involved bank insiders, while the rest covered accountants, attorneys, and other third parties.

Mr. Stern's report highlights some of his office's biggest cases, including Mr. Keating's 1993 conviction on 77 counts of racketeering, conspiracy, and bank fraud. The government proved that Mr. Keating and others used Lincoln Savings and Loan to bail out a company he owned and to create false profits through a bogus land sale.

Mr. Stern's office also snared Mr. Dixon, who was convicted of using funds from Vernon Savings and Loan to pay for his use of a private plane, and Mr. Nagvi, former president of the Bank of Credit Commerce International, who pleaded guilty to defrauding the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and acquiring U.S. banks without permission.

Mr. Stern also pursued Tom J. Billman, the so-called "fugitive financier" who spent more than five years on the lamb after being indicted for looting Community Savings and Loan in Maryland. After being deported from Paris, Mr. Billman was sentenced to 40 years in jail and ordered to pay $41 million.

The department also nabbed David Paul, former chairman of Miami- based Centrust. The government charged he hid the bank's shaky financial condition from regulators and used $3.2 million in bank funds to buy a 95- foot yacht and build a house. A judge sentenced him to 11 years in jail and ordered him to pay $56 million in restitution.

While Mr. Stern is gone, the civil division at the Justice Department and individual U.S. Attorney's offices are continuing to review financial fraud.

"It has been knocked off the front pages a little bit because of all the anti-violent-crime initiatives," said Christopher Droney, U.S. attorney for Connecticut. "But I still believe that a considerable amount of the resources of the U.S. Attorney's offices around the country are dedicated to financial fraud cases."

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