Alan B. Levan toiled for years to polish BankAtlantic's balance sheet. Now, if he could just do something about its tarnished image.

Sued by shareholders, accused of defrauding investors, and pilloried on a prime-time network news program, Mr. Levan, a former real estate mogul turned thrift chief executive, unwillingly became a subject of controversy. By association, so did his thrift.

After winning a $10 million libel lawsuit against ABC News in December, Mr. Levan - BankAtlantic's chairman, CEO and controlling shareholder-is now trying to get attention off his troubles and onto his thrift's virtues.

In fact, one of Mr. Levan's signature traits is his ability to make the best of a bad situation. What started out as a public relations nightmare- with charges of Mr. Levan's swindling investors-he now says he considers a plus.

"I think the (libel) verdict has really called attention to BankAtlantic as a success story," said the 52-year-old banker in a recent interview from the thrift's conference room, which overlooks bustling Fort Lauderdale. Mr. Levan, well-attired in a crisp white monogrammed shirt, seemed poised and surprisingly prepared to face the press one more time.

ABC broadcast a "20/20" segment about Mr. Levan in 1991, portraying him as a crooked wheeler-dealer selling bum real estate "rollup" securities to Florida investors.

Despite the bad publicity, $2.7 billion-asset BankAtlantic, the largest independent thrift in the state, is considered by many as one of South Florida's few savings and loan turnaround stories. The thrift, which lost millions of dollars between 1987 and 1991, has been profitable since 1992.

Several analysts and shareholders say the thrift, a wholly owned subsidiary of BankAtlantic Bancorp, has a solid plan to grow- through acquisitions, an automated teller machine expansion that has put its ATMs on cruise ships, and lucrative branches in Wal-Mart SuperCenter stores throughout South Florida. The thrift's return on average assets last year hit 1.16% and return on average equity reached 17.34%-up from 16.03% the previous year. Assets have more than doubled from $1.3 billion in 1992.

"The best cure for image problems is performance," said Benjamin Bishop, chairman of Allen C. Ewing Investment Bankers in Jacksonville, Fla. "I think Alan knows that and he's concentrating on it."

Jim Benson, a bank analyst at Ryan, Beck & Co., is rating the stock a "strong buy" and said the thrift, which is starting to strongly resemble a commercial bank, is undervalued. The stock is trading in the $13 range, a huge increase from 53 cents a share in January 1992.

"It's a quality bank, and it's moving forward quite nicely," he said. "Wall Street has not fully discovered its potential."

"He gets the criticism, so he also has to get the reviews when the institution does well," said Elliot Borkson, a shareholder who sued BankAtlantic in 1989. "Whether he's solely responsible for it, I don't know. You have to give him credit for staying with the institution."

Not everyone agrees that the verdict is enough to eliminate the thrift's perception problems. ABC is making an appeal, and the six-year-old case is expected to drag on for a few more years.

One Wall Street analyst, who asked not to be named, said he won't cover BankAtlantic because the publicity has left him with a bad impression. He complains that according to the thrift's stock structure, the majority of shareholders can own only nonvoting stock.

Mr. Levan has heard these complaints before. He lists several reasons that BankAtlantic is still somewhat ignored in the market. Besides its size and its thrift charter, the company is tightly held by Mr. Levan, who along with his BFC Financial Corp. controls 46.1% of the voting stock. He owns 1.54% of the stock in his own name.

Mr. Levan said that ownership structure won't change and that it's vital to the company's future.

"I believe small banks spend an inordinate amount of their time figuring out whether they want to be for sale, what they will do if an offer comes in, or how to protect themselves to stay independent," he said.

Mr. Levan only smiles when asked whether some of Florida's largest banks have expressed interest.

"We are here for the long haul," Mr. Levan said. "We expect to be an acquirer as opposed to being acquired."

If BankAtlantic sells, it will be Mr. Levan who gets the last laugh, not to mention lots of money, said Kenneth Thomas, an independent bank analyst in Miami.

"I think the most unusual thing is, he's a survivor," Mr. Thomas said. "To be a survivor with a traditional S&L, especially in South Florida, was a major accomplishment in itself. All this adverse publicity in the halls of Congress and "20/20," and he's still around to talk about it."

And Mr. Levan wants to talk about it. Since the verdict last December, he continues trying to clear his name. He arranged a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, a popular stumping ground for presidents and world leaders, to insist his court victory wasn't a judgment against journalism.

He said publicity after the verdict characterized the thrift and him as threats to the journalism. He specifically criticized ABC attorney Floyd Abrams, who Mr. Levan says continues to libel him.

ABC is standing by its story and said it did not libel Mr. Levan.

Mr. Abrams, who said ABC wants an appellate judge to reduce the judgment amount if the verdict is not vacated, was reticent last week when asked to discuss the case. He said Mr. Levan has threatened to sue him personally for libel.

"The reason we sued ABC in the first instance was because in the late '80s there became a feeding frenzy of misinformation about the bank," Mr. Levan said. "It was being repeated and reported by the media."

Controversy at BankAtlantic goes back to Mr. Levan's first association with it, in 1987, when he bought control.

Other shareholders, led by Mr. Borkson, sued, claiming that Mr. Levan and Jack Abdo, the thrift's vice chairman, reneged on a deal to buy their stock at the same price paid to another shareholder to gain control of the institution. That suit was dropped six years later due to the thrift's rising stock price.

Then came the controversy that changed Mr. Levan's life-rollups.

In the late 1980s, he offered investors the chance to exchange their interest in BFC real estate partnerships for bonds issued by BFC. When the bonds lost value, the investors sued, claiming Mr. Levan knowingly bilked them.

While characterizations of how the investor suit was concluded vary, the end result was that Mr. Levan paid the investors $8 million in 1992 to resolve it. A jury in that case ruled in favor of the investors, but a judge vacated the ruling after the parties reached an agreement out of court. Mr. Levan says that he "didn't settle" and that the civil trial did not find he had defrauded anyone.

To top it all off, Congress got interested and held hearings on real estate rollups in 1991, calling Mr. Levan to testify. Later that year, ABC aired its report on the controversy. Mr. Levan filed suit against ABC, and his rehabilitation began-culminating last December with his court victory.

He said a loss would have been a major blow. "It was a huge risk," he said. "Anytime you go after one of the largest companies in the world, and particularly with the media prowess (of ABC), if we couldn't support all of our claims and dotted all our I's and crossed all our T's, they would have destroyed us."

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