WASHINGTON -- Prominent Washington attorney Clark M. Clifford and his law partner demanded yesterday that they be put on trial "immediately" on new criminal charges, complaining that they were being persecuted by publicity-seeking prosecutors looking for a "scalp" in an international banking scandal.
During a deeply emotional, hour-long press conference by Mr. Clifford and Robert A. Altman, one of their defense attorneys, Carl S. Rauh, said that Mr. Clifford, 85, had a serious heart condition, might need risky bypass surgery, and wanted to be "vindicated before he dies."
The prolonged encounter with reporters and television camera crews in Mr. Rauh's law offices clearly was intended to put federal and state prosecutors on the defensive, and to dare them to stage a swift trial based on evidence that Mr. Clifford denounced as flimsy.
Mr. Clifford, one of Washington's leading lawyers and a frequent adviser to Democratic presidents, has been accused along with Mr. Altman of a series of federal and state crimes for the two men's ties to a Washington bank that was taken over secretly by the scandal-ridden Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).
In a 45-minute monologue with reporters, Mr. Clifford went over the details of his and Mr. Altman's more than nine years of leadership of First American Bank here, repeatedly insisted that they and the bank had been made "victims" by BCCI's secret tactics, and firmly claimed their complete innocence.
He did insist that BCCI never had any control over the management of First American. "First American's operations and policies," he said, "bear no resemblance to those of BCCI. They had their way of doing business."
The aging lawyer, his voice strong throughout, said he and Mr. Altman had met with reporters to give "the other side of the case." He proceeded to ridicule the criminal charges as based on no direct accusation by any witness or any document available to government prosecutors.
He insisted that he and Mr. Altman did not make vast sums out of their ties to First American, and said that there was no similarity between the way they ran the bank and the way some of the nation's thrift institutions were run, leading to the savings and loan scandal.
Mr. Clifford said he worked at the bank for only $50,000 a year in salary, well below the salary of at least $1 million for the head of the chief competitor bank, Riggs Bank. He and Mr. Altman, he said, have "been caught in the competition by large, powerful governmental forces, each of whom has been striving to demonstrate that that particular institution is out in front, exploring BCCI, exposing its wrongdoing."
Because prosecutors knew that any indicted foreigners probably could not be tried here, Mr. Clifford told reporters, "I think that they [the prosecutors] were determined that in some manner they could find someone within the U.S. who was available to be indicted so that they could have that particular scalp."
Mr. Altman told reporters that there was "no direct evidence" against himself or Mr. Clifford, but insisted that there was "a mountain of direct evidence," all favorable to their claims that they committed no crimes.