Frank Biondi, Delaware banking law author, dies at 90
WILMINGTON – O. Francis “Frank” Biondi, whose behind-the-scenes service to Democratic and Republican governors brought him unofficial designation as Delaware’s “prime minister,” died May 30. He was 90.
Biondi, who died of a heart attack at his second home in Jupiter, Fla., according to family, rose to prominence in the 1960s as Wilmington’s city solicitor, where he wrote landmark legislation modernizing city government. He also helped guide the city back to normalcy during a nine-month occupation by the Delaware National Guard following rioting prompted by the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968.
But Biondi’s most significant achievement in a career filled with accomplishments was writing and smoothing the path to passage of the 1981 Financial Center Development Act, legislation that ultimately brought about 35 credit card banks to the state, creating an estimated 40,000 new jobs in the process. Credit banking became Delaware’s largest single economic force, a goose that laid golden egg after golden egg.
“He was able to enjoy the trust of and earn the ear of governors who were Democrats and those who were Republicans,” said Sen. Tom Carper, Delaware’s governor from 1993 to 2001. “Members of about 40,000 families have jobs in the banking industry. That wouldn’t be the case without Frank Biondi.”
“No lawyer I know was ever as prepared as Frank Biondi,” said David S. Swayze, former Wilmington city solicitor and chief of staff to the late Gov. Pierre S. du Pont IV. “Frank could be intimidating. I could see the fear people had of crossing him, but I never saw him threaten anybody. Just the inflection of his voice could convey that message. It made him larger than life and gave him an outsized sense of power.”
Setting the stage for enactment of the Financial Center Development Act was Biondi’s work for Gov. Sherman W. Tribbitt from 1973 to 1977 and then for du Pont from 1977 to 1985.
After demonstrating his political chops and legislative acumen in Wilmington’s City Hall, Tribbitt recruited Biondi to serve as co-leader of his transition team. Once Tribbitt took office, most of Biondi’s work was accomplished in the background, save for his service as vice chairman of the Delaware Agency to Reduce Crime, an organization responsible for building partnerships between prosecutors and police agencies as well as securing and disbursing federal funds for criminal justice programs.
Biondi might not have invented the “Delaware Way,” the unique custom of sitting government, business and nonprofit leaders with diverse views around a table and somehow arriving at solutions to the state’s thorniest issues, but he was instrumental in its creation and served as its personification for decades.
In his recently published memoir “Andiamo!”, Biondi explained how he offered Tribbitt a solution to reconciling differences between environmentalists and the business community following the passage of the controversial Coastal Zone Act in 1971.
“I told Tribbitt that I’m young [he was 40 at the time] but I’ve had a little experience in Wilmington, and I’ve learned that if you put people together in a committee setting, in the same place, they’ll all try to make sense. There’s something about putting people together and just talking,” he said.
That conversation led to the establishment of the Delaware Tomorrow Commission, charged with creating a statewide plan for growth. Its roster of 31 members read like a who’s who of Delaware – legislators, Cabinet secretaries, city and county officials, labor and business leaders and representatives of groups like the League of Women Voters. And Tribbitt named Biondi as its chair.
The commission’s report in 1976 received favorable reviews, yet few of its recommendations were implemented. Nevertheless, du Pont, upon taking office, decided to reincarnate the commission as the Intergovernmental Task Force, with Biondi as co-chair alongside another prominent Delaware attorney, E. Norman Veasey, who later became chief justice of the Delaware Supreme Court.
The commission’s extended life led to the creation of other panels with similar objectives. While many resulted only in the accumulation of huge stacks of paper, they did help build the bipartisan and civic bonds that made enactment of the Financial Center Development Act possible.
A unanimous 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting states’ power to regulate interest rates charged by nationally chartered banks opened the door. Soon after, Wilmington city officials told Biondi that out-of-state banks might be interested in setting up shop in Wilmington. In the spring of 1980, Chase Manhattan Bank executives were quizzing the du Pont administration about the chances of passing favorable legislation in Delaware.
When Chase officials, along with Delaware bankers and state and Wilmington leaders, held a meeting at the Wilmington Club to discuss the prospects, it fell to Biondi to offer a simplified explanation of the maze of state and federal banking laws. When the meeting was concluded, du Pont determined that the state needed to act and, the next morning, Chase was hiring Biondi to represent the bank in the negotiations.
Talks among the banks and the lawmakers continued quietly through the summer and fall, with barely any notice from the public and the media, and a first draft of the legislation, written by Biondi, was ready in mid-December 1980. Meanwhile, New York state had tightened its anti-usury laws, prompting both Chase Manhattan and J.P. Morgan banks to promise to move operations to Delaware if the General Assembly passed the legislation by the end of January 1981.
It took until Feb. 3, 1981, with Biondi testifying multiple times in Legislative Hall – and for eight hours on the day of the clinching Senate debate, for the Financial Center Development Act to win approval. Du Pont’s signature quickly followed.
The law’s passage marked the pinnacle of a life that began as the first baby born in Delaware on New Year’s Day 1933. Biondi grew up on Vandever Avenue, the northern border of an Italian-American community known as the 11th Street Bridge Colony. His father, Ferdinando Biondi, was a laborer at the nearby Pennsylvania Railroad shops. His mother, the former Mary Masci, was a seamstress who worked for a while at the Electric Hose & Rubber plant a few blocks away.
Biondi attended Salesianum School when it was still located at Eighth and West streets in downtown Wilmington and went on to earn degrees from LaSalle College and Boston College, and his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
After passing the Delaware bar examination in 1958, Biondi began his legal career as an associate to Joseph A.L. Errigo, a well-known attorney in the state. His early work was quite mundane – wills, small claims cases, documents for small businesses and some family law matters – but he also quickly developed a reputation for writing strong legal briefs. That skill attracted the attention of C. Stewart Lynch, Wilmington’s city solicitor, who hired him as a part-time assistant. That led to a decade of double-duty splitting time between his private practice and City Hall, where he succeeded Lynch after John J. Babiarz was elected mayor in 1964.
In 1966, Biondi’s career took a stunning turn when he discovered evidence that Errigo had been using his clients’ funds for personal purposes. After confiding in some trusted colleagues, Biondi swore out a warrant for Errigo’s arrest. The action was triply courageous, as Errigo was not only his employer and a prominent figure in Delaware’s Italian-American community but also Wilmington’s commissioner of public safety, making him Biondi’s boss.
Errigo briefly fled the city, but the charges and his surrender dominated news coverage for more than a week. Meanwhile, Biondi struggled to pay the law firm’s bills and many in his church shunned him for having the audacity to turn on Errigo. But the leaders of Wilmington’s legal community stood behind him and Errigo was disbarred, pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In the aftermath, Biondi and Harvey Porter bought out Errigo’s share of the law firm, and Biondi led it, with several different partners, for more than a decade. In that time, he built a reputation as one of the state’s top labor lawyers, representing clients as diverse as the University of Delaware’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors and Local 326 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, headed by the legendary (or infamous) Frank Sheeran.
In 1979, he became a senior partner at Morris, Nichols, Arsht and Tunnell, one of Delaware’s largest law firms. In addition to his private practice, he served as Delaware counsel to the Delaware River and Bay Authority from 1974 to 2001.
Until his retirement in 2001, Biondi served on many boards, committees and organizations associated with the state’s legal system. He served as president of the Delaware State Bar Association in 1984-85 and co-chairman on the Commission on Delaware Courts 2000 in 1993-96.
Biondi was well-known for his community service, most notably as the pro bono legal counsel for St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church and its affiliated organizations from 1958 to 2010. In that role he provided essential support to many projects, including construction of Padua Academy and of the Antonian apartments for senior citizens.
His other community service included terms as a director of the Grand Opera House and as a trustee of the Wilmington Medical Center.
Among his many honors were induction into the Order of the First State by Gov. Carper in 1998 and receiving the Josiah Marvel Cup from the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce in 2016.
Biondi is survived by his wife Anita; his son, O. Francis Jr.; his daughter, Mary Catherine Biondi Moran; and three grandchildren, Serena, Carter and Joy Biondi. Details on potential funeral arrangements are not yet available.
Delaware journalist Larry Nagengast wrote the narrative of the recently published “Andiamo! The Memoirs of Frank Biondi.”