Quiet, diligent worker was a model of the American ethos

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His colleagues called him Mr Middle America. Every day for seven years John Rusnak said goodbye to his wife and two children before leaving their middle-class home with its Stars and Stripes above the door and heading for his middle-management job with Allfirst Financial Inc in Baltimore.

He had a shiny Cherokee four-wheel drive, attended church regularly and worked quietly and diligently while younger, more brash colleagues streaked ahead of him in the promotion stakes.

He earned about $85,000 (£60,000), a modest sum for someone in banking, but managers had no inkling that Mr Middle America was unhappy.

But he was. For the past year he had been faking trades and lying to his bosses in a fraud that was to leave a half-billion pound hole in Allfirst's accounts. And as yet, no one knows whether he has lost the money or salted it away in one of the biggest frauds the world has ever seen.

Yesterday the mood among Mr Rusnak's fellow workers at Allfirst and his neighbours in the leafy suburb of Mount Washington was one of utter surprise. John Rusnak simply does not fit the bill.

Aged in his mid-40s, the rogue trader was yesterday described as a pillar of his local community. He is a member of the local school board and a regular at the Shrine of Sacred Heart Church in Mount Pleasant. The home he shares with his wife, Linda, and children, Katie and Alex, is just a few hundred yards from the church. A large, wood-built, three-storey house, painted a shade of magnolia and with green shutters, it reeks of solid, honest American values.

In the back garden of the property yesterday was a multi-coloured plastic playhouse, while propped against the side of the side wall were two sledges. Next to them, two aluminium scooters bearing the names "Alex and Katie".

Indoors, standing near a hand-made card in the hallway celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary, Mrs Rusnak was refusing to talk. "I know you're just doing your job," she said. "But my job is to protect my family. I have nothing to say."

Stunned investors around the world were more interested in what her husband – who appeared briefly at his home yesterday before driving off again – had to say.

In Dublin, executives at AIB were only let in on the bad news on Monday, almost three weeks after their American counterparts had become aware of internal accounting problems that were to spiral into a £537m black hole.

During a routine management review of Allfirst's treasury division, colleagues noted Mr Rusnak was requesting sharply increasing amounts of bank money to cover loss-making positions encountered in his trading activities.

Following up, amazed investigators found he had been hiding losses on foreign exchange deals by writing false transactions to offset the deficits he was incurring.

Offsetting possible short-term losses in this way – a practice known in the trade as "hedging" – is familiar enough and perfectly legal. But in this case the contracts, relating to deals mainly in the volatile Far East, were fictitious.

Managers approached Rusnak with evidence of his false trades last week. By Sunday, they had more serious questions for their man, but he was not answering the phone. On Monday, the diligent, steady Rusnak failed to turn up for work.

Inevitably, comparisons are being made with Nick Leeson, the rogue trader who wiped out Barings Bank when he lost £830m on similar trades in Singapore in 1995.

Michael Buckley, AIB's chief executive, is already using the word "fraud", suggesting there was internal or external collusion between Rusnak and someone who may have benefited from the trades, helped him to create fictitious trades or who turned a blind eye while he did.

After suspending a number of staff in Baltimore, Mr Buckley said: "The nature of this fraud was very complex. We have a very adequate series of checks and balances, in the same way that a house has a very good alarm system.

"But someone who is determined and very expert and in a position to overcome that system can do it.

"We are hugely disappointed that our ... control procedures failed to uncover this situation at an earlier stage. The investigation now under way will determine not only how it arose but also how we can guard against any recurrence."

He said the trader had been "using artificially created trades to offset losses he had been making on real trades".

Pat Ryan, Allied Irish Bank's group treasurer, who flew from Dublin to take part in the investigation, added: "The indication is that this was a very complex fraud", but he added that it was "too early" to say if Mr Rusnak had personally gained.

"Some people do it for gain," he said. "Some people do it because they get caught in a pride issue and they are unable to admit to mistakes.

"This has turned up time and again in other losses. They started with small mistakes which they would cover up. Fictitious transactions were created which gave the appearance of hedging and therefore smaller net opening positions and in reality, that trader was creating bigger risk than he should."

One of the people now in the firing line is Frank Bramble, chairman of the Baltimore bank. Unlike Mr Buckley, he was anxious to suggest Mr Rusnak had no accomplices.

"At this point this was what appears to have been a very sophisticated and well-thought out fraud on this individual's part," he said. "It was very clever and went on for more than a year. This was done by an isolated individual who found a way to crash our internal control system.

If our internal control system had worked properly it would have been caught much earlier. This trader was somehow able to override the internal control system."

The FBI refused to admit it was looking for Mr Rusnak, but AIB is known to have called in the bureau in and named him. Special Agent Peter Gulotta said: "The FBI in Baltimore is involved in a federal investigation into fraud pertaining to the Allfirst Bank. There are no warrants for anyone's arrest at the present time. There are no court documents that have been filed. It is an ongoing investigation which we are operating, and cannot comment further."

The Securities Exchange Commission, which oversees the finance industry in America, is also likely to investigate, but a spokesman said: "We cannot comment on what we are or are not investigating."

Later, at the Rusnak home, Mrs Rusnak gave up coming to the door to say "no comment" to the hordes of journalists that had come knocking. An answering machine message simply said: "John, Linda, Katie and Alex aren't in right now, but please leave a message."

By nightfall, the tape was filled with questions only John Rusnak could answer.