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Ashton J. Ryan Jr., former president and CEO of First NBC Bank, participates in the Nasdaq Exchange's May 10, 2013, debut of the bank's stock in public trading.

Six weeks later, local defense lawyers who specialize in white-collar crime are circling in the water, fielding calls from former bank officials and others affected by First NBC Bank's sudden collapse. 

But behind the scenes, federal auditors are probing bank records for clues as to why the New Orleans-based community bank's loan portfolio and tax-credit investments absorbed such heavy losses in its final months.

For now, much of the heavy lifting will be done by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., a U.S. banking regulator that protects bank customers in the event of failure. The agency was named the receiver when First NBC was declared insolvent on April 28. 

Across the U.S., bank failures have slowed significantly since the height of the financial crisis, in 2010, when regulators closed 157 banks, the highest tally since the savings-and-loan crisis ended in 1992. So far, six banks have failed in 2017, including First NBC. 

Now, the FDIC will now dust off a familiar playbook as it combs through First NBC's collapse, which is estimated to cost nearly $1 billion to clean up.

The agency is funded by premiums that banks and thrift institutions pay for deposit insurance coverage and by interest earned on its investment portfolio of U.S. Treasury securities. No federal or state tax revenues are involved.

In the coming months, the agency's inspector general is due to issue a report that will examine the job regulators did supervising the New Orleans bank and the factors that contributed to its collapse. The report will also make recommendations for preventing future FDIC losses.

In some cases, the FDIC pursues litigation against bank officers and directors in order to recoup damages, typically alleging that they were negligent or failed in their fiduciary duty in overseeing some key area of the bank's business.

"The FDIC is required to investigate bank failures and assert claims against those responsible (so as) to recoup losses incurred by the insurance fund," said Thomas Vartanian, a former regulator who is now a partner at the law firm Dechert LLP in Washington, D.C. Vartanian has handled many such cases.

The FDIC's decision on whether to pursue such a lawsuit typically comes after an investigation that can take as long as 18 months, experts say.

There's a reason to be so deliberate: Bringing such a case is never a slam dunk. Bank directors are given latitude to use their best business judgment; if they can plausibly argue they were acting in good faith on an informed basis, their exposure is limited.

But such suits are hardly rare. In fact, the FDIC filed claims against directors and officers in 39 percent of bank failures that occurred from 2008 to 2015, federal data show. 

By and large, the litigation is aimed at recouping proceeds from insurance policies that are taken out to protect bank directors and officers from personal liability, experts say. The FDIC has a three-year window to file suits for tort claims and six years for breach-of-contract claims.

In 2013, for example, the FDIC filed 40 lawsuits claiming at least $1.2 billion in damages because of the actions of bank directors and officers, according to a 2014 report by Cornerstone Research. The bulk of those lawsuits were aimed at institutions that failed in 2009 and 2010.

"At the end of the day, unless there are overtly intentional violations of law, fraud or illegal actions that result in financial benefits to insiders or other professionals, it often becomes a complicated battle over the (directors and officers) insurance that is available," Vartanian said.

The FDIC staff typically tries to settle suits ahead of a trial.

Ronald Glancz, a former FDIC banking regulator who retired last year as a partner at the law firm Venable LLP in Washington, D.C., said federal examiners are probably reviewing records and interviewing former First NBC employees to determine if there's a basis for a lawsuit.

Their probable key questions: "Was somebody at fault? Were the directors asleep at the switch? Were they monitoring the situation? Were they acting prudently, in terms of making sure that the management was doing a good job?" Glancz said.

But proving negligence can be difficult.

"You better think it's a good loan when you make it," Glancz said, "but you can't foresee the future, so there's not always a basis to show that the directors or officers were negligent."

In some respects, First NBC's previous disclosures could offer a place to start. An internal review made public last year said Ryan had a "dominant influence" at the bank, and the review blamed the board for a lack of "adequate oversight” over lending practices.

"One thing they're going to look closely at is: When did the board know about these accounting lapses and internal controls, and what did they do about it?" Glancz said.

First NBC also disclosed last year that it was being investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission; it said it was cooperating with the probe.

That probe could take various paths for investigating potential securities violations, such as whether banking information was manipulated, or if investigators suspect insider trading occurred.

Those possibilities include federal civil litigation or an administrative proceeding. The SEC also has the ability to issue subpoenas to compel testimony and produce books, records and other pertinent documents. 

Depending on what those investigations turn up, the SEC can refer potential criminal charges to federal prosecutors, who could decide to open their own investigation. But such criminal proceedings are infrequent.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, only one top banker — Kareem Serageldin, an executive with Credit Suisse — went to jail for his role in the meltdown. 

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.