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Developer With a Cause Battles on Many Fronts

March 13, 1988|TOM FURLONG | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — As a young naval pilot, Charles H. Keating Jr. was in an especially fine mood one evening as he prepared to land his Hellcat fighter plane at an airfield in south Florida.

Eagerly anticipating a date with an attractive woman, Keating had deliberately stayed close to the field as he flew the night training maneuvers. He had quietly arranged to be the first in his squadron to land so he could get off duty as fast as possible.

With a trumpet solo by Harry James blaring from his radio, Keating steered the fighter plane into what he thought would be a routine landing. There was just one problem: He had forgotten to put the wheels down.

"The (control) tower was telling me: 'Your wheels are up,' but all I could hear was old Harry," Keating recalled recently in an interview at his office here.

Though the ensuing belly-flop landing destroyed the Hellcat, Keating survived by jumping from the craft while it was still skidding down the landing strip. Rescue workers found the young aviator sitting on his parachute at the edge of the runway, his expensive plane in flames nearby.

Now nearly 65 and a rich businessman, Keating still conducts himself with the same single-mindedness that nearly claimed his life on that military airstrip in Vero Beach toward the end of World War II. Just as he lived through that crash, Keating has survived many scrapes in the business world without major damage--at least so far.

As the decades have elapsed, Keating has often been at the center of one tempest or another, but they have never slowed him down. In the past 10 years, he has emerged as a businessman without apparent peer in Arizona in terms of riches, clout and color.

"Charlie is impatient, aggressive, always on the move," said William J. Keating, who cited the plane crash story to illustrate his brother's modus operandi . "He has clearly defined goals."

Financier, political fund-raiser and real estate developer Charles Keating is chairman and controlling shareholder of American Continental, a Phoenix real estate development company, which in turn owns a highly unorthodox financial institution in Orange County known as Lincoln Savings & Loan.

Lincoln Savings has been both a bane and blessing for Keating since American Continental bought the thrift for $51 million in 1984. The financial institution has helped finance his ambitious development schemes but has placed him in continual combat with federal thrift regulators.

As well known for his conservative causes as for his business endeavors, Keating has compiled a formidable list of foes over the years. They include pornographers, journalists and--most recently--government bureaucrats who regulate the nation's savings and loan firms.

"Charlie Keating has made a lot of enemies," said one associate who asked not to be further identified. "He's stubborn, he's an entrepreneur and he has his own way of doing things."

"I don't think he worries about the popularity of his positions," said William Keating, who used to be a U.S. congressman from Cincinnati, where the Keating brothers were raised. Charles Keating did not move to Phoenix until the mid-1970s.

Some see Charles Keating as a right-wing partisan with uncommon political influence who tries to conquer his foes through intimidation and litigation. Among those sued by Keating's companies in recent times are a newspaper in suburban Mesa, Ariz., and a government regulatory agency.

So controversial has Keating been in Phoenix in recent years that he spent about $500,000 on radio advertisements recently to spruce up his image. The radio spots promoted his real estate developments and his family-oriented view of the world.

Others see him as a symbol of decency who relishes a good fight, loathes pornography and quietly helps the down and out. A deeply religious Roman Catholic, Keating's passions are his work, his causes and his family, friends say.

American Continental is very much a family affair, although some shares are owned by the public. Keating family members and in-laws own a majority of the stock and dominate its board. Even Keating's wife of 38 years has a job as chief decorator for American Continental hotels.

Keating's only son, Charles H. Keating III, known as C3, is an executive vice president who at age 31 made $800,000 in 1986, a year his father earned $1.77 million, the company's latest proxy statement shows.

Keating lives elegantly in a walled-off mansion in suburban Phoenix that is a favorite gathering spot for a clan that includes six children and 19 grandchildren. Keating and his American Continental executives are ferried around in three jets and a helicopter that are housed in an unmarked hangar at the Phoenix municipal airport.

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