BCCI: still a mystery

August 18, 1993

The acquittal of Washington attorney Robert A. Altman of criminal fraud charges is a milestone in the tangled history of the mysterious Bank of Credit and Commerce International. A successful prosecution of Mr. Altman and his mentor, the distinguished attorney and presidential adviser Clark Clifford, would have broken open one of the most perplexing international financial swindles in history. The clear-cut jury verdict in New York leaves the world's financial community still frustrated.

One thing is certain: BCCI was a gigantic financial fraud. However sensational its American aspect because of some of the personalities involved, it was a sideshow next to the international scandal. Thousands of depositors lost billions of dollars in BCCI, controlled by a shadowy Middle Eastern band of conspirators.

The issue in the New York case was whether BCCI had attempted surreptitiously to extend its operations into this country by illegally taking control of First American Bank in Washington. Mr. Clifford (whose trial was delayed because of his health) and Mr. Altman were accused of deceiving U.S. officials by hiding the true ownership of First American.

What appeared to some laymen as a juicy case of insider shenanigans was in fact an intricate legal challenge. The public focused on the high-profile defendants: Mr. Clifford, former cabinet member and adviser to Democratic presidents since Harry Truman, and his protege Mr. Altman, a skillful attorney and, not incidentally, husband of TV's Wonder Woman, actress Lynda Carter. So perhaps did prosecutorial attention, since New York and federal prosecutors engaged in what looked like an unseemly race to beat each other to indictments.

But the jury focused on the evidence, or lack of it. The prosecution case was circumstantial. Its principal witnesses were shady characters, or bank regulators who raised suspicions they were concealing their own failure to deal with BCCI.

Half of the prosecution case was thrown out by the judge without even requiring a defense. Technically the criminal cases against Mr. Altman and Mr. Clifford are not over; as a practical matter they are.

Where does that leave defrauded depositors of BCCI and baffled bank regulators around the world? Some will wonder whether a less ambitious federal prosecution -- deferred in favor of the state charges -- might have had a different outcome. We are left with the fruits of other investigations abroad, as well as whatever light may be shed by civil cases still pending in this country.

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