Pat the Giant Killer / Whistle-blower got big help in fight against BankAmerica

You would think that the man who just won $25 million by suing the nation's second-largest bank would be quick to say a little guy can indeed beat the system.

But Pat Stull draws a much different conclusion from the settlement announced Thursday in which BankAmerica Corp. agreed to pay him and his fellow plaintiffs $187.5 million. Stull initiated the whistle-blower lawsuit in 1995, charging the bank with cheating municipal bond issuers.

In an interview in his Parnassus Heights home yesterday, Stull came across less the dragon slayer than a man sobered by how tough it was to take on a powerful corporation.

It was only the combined might of all the plaintiffs, including the state of California, the city and county of San Francisco, and nearly 300 other local government units, that brought BofA to its knees, he said.

"I was naive to think this would be resolved based just on the facts," said Stull, a former manager in BofA's municipal bond unit who turned against the bank after leaving it in 1990.

"A small guy like me could not go after BofA unless he had the state of California and the city attorney behind him. If it were just me and (my lawyers), we'd have been crushed."

With the backing of his government allies, Stull was anything but crushed.

In addition to his financial windfall, some of which will pay attorneys' fees and other costs, Stull was upheld on the central claim that has animated him since he filed the suit.

BofA now admits, as Stull maintained, that it improperly shifted unclaimed bond payments to its own accounts instead of returning them to issuers, which would have used the funds to pay for roads, schools and other public facilities.

The bank says its mishandling of funds was due to errors, not a deliberate policy of cheating its customers.

Said Stull: "I'm pleased that I've been vindicated."

The case has all but consumed the 51-year-old Stull, who has actively participated in setting strategy with his lawyers at the San Francisco firm of Farella Braun & Martel.

"Every day I've been working on it one way or another," he explained. "It's been my life for four years."

When Stull quit BofA to spend more time with his sick child, he set up a business auditing bond accounts for municipal governments.

His audits showed that BofA had improperly overcharged or kept refunds from many of his clients.

The trim, gray-haired Stull, an austere-looking Irish Catholic who was schooled by Franciscan and Dominican priests, has a stubborn and moralistic streak, according to people who know him.

When some at BofA threatened him with legal action, the consultant turned into a crusader, using whistle-blower laws to sue his former employer.

"When people attack me and say things that aren't true, it just makes me more committed," he said.

Stull, who is already financially comfortable, didn't deny that money was a consideration when he sued BofA. "To say I never thought about financial rewards is absurd," he noted.

But he insisted he never would have pursued the case if principles weren't at stake.

"The stress something like this puts on your family, your kids -- the damage it does to your reputation. . . . People would come up and shake their fingers at us in the street, chastising us for taking on the Bank of America. But when you believe you're doing the right thing, you just plow right through it."

Stull now must put behind him one of the things that's given meaning to his life.

With no financial worries, he wants to travel, spend more time with his family and do volunteer work, he said. But, he admits, "I still don't know exactly what I'm going to do."

His advice for those who would be whistle-blowers is to find lawyers they trust and think long and hard about the course they're considering.

Never forget, he said, if you threaten a powerful institution, "they can destroy you so fast."