'We Were Deceived'

July 31, 1992

Eleven years ago, Clark Clifford told the Federal Reserve Board it need not be concerned about the sale of the largest bank holding company in Washington to a group that some believed was involved with the Bank of Commerce and Credit International, an enterprise widely suspected of corrupt activities. "There is no function of any kind on the part of BCCI," Mr. Clifford said.

In large part because of that statement, the board approved the sale and subsequent related activities by the bank company -- American Bankshares Inc. Over the next 10 years, lawyer Clifford and his partner, Robert Altman, received some $40 million from BCCI in what they say were straightforward business arrangements but were, federal and New York prosecutors have now charged in separate indictments, phony legal fees, sham loans and rigged stock sales. In other words, these were allegedly payoffs to keep BCCI's role and activities involving the banks hidden from regulators and law enforcement officials.

As a consequence of these indictments, Mr. Clifford and Mr. Altman were fingerprinted and arraigned Wednesday. Quite a painful indignity, especially for Mr. Clifford, a pillar of Washington's legal-political establishment for over 40 years. Perhaps for him it was even more of an indignity to offer as proof of his innocence the plea that he was a dupe. This from the man of whom it used to be said -- with admiration -- that his fingerprints were on some deal. He was the most knowing Washington insider. Presidents, of corporations and nations, sought him out not for his knowledge of the law but for his judgment and instincts, his understanding of personalities and institutions -- of what was really going on in Washington. But yesterday he said, "We accepted them [his BCCI clients and their front men] for what they appeared to be. We were deceived." This from the man who, as Rep. Chalmers Wylie, R-Ohio, recently reminded him, once put down Ronald Reagan as an "amiable dunce."

An indictment is not a conviction. It is certainly possible that Mr. Clifford and Mr. Altman committed no crime. That they caused harm seems obvious: They helped a powerful international wrongdoer to prosper. But that is another matter. For Americans, though, it may be the more important matter. Many citizens have a deep sense of unease about the way the "inside-the-beltway" game is played by officeholders, bureaucrats, wealthy enterprises and the Clark Cliffords who facilitate their interactions. The prosecutors have an opportunity to reveal to the nation exactly how this works and what the effects can be. Such revelations could and should lead to reform.

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