Altman, not guilty, had a fool for a client

Robert Reno

August 19, 1993|By Robert Reno

IF, back in the 1980s, a bunch of smooth foreigners had come to me and asked me to be a partner in a deal involving the takeover of a Washington bank, a deal in which I would be showered with fees and stock profits, I wonder what I would have done.

Well, one thing I would have done was to go to some of the shrewdest lawyers I could find, guys with big connections. And I would have asked them to assure me that I wasn't getting into something that would bring me a lot of grief and embarrassment, that I wasn't about to make a Neil Bush of myself. I'd especially want to know more about the character of these people and the nature of their enterprise, something called the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. And I'd surely want a better explanation of why they were proposing to unload a fortune on me and make me chairman and president of a bank when I had little more banking background than a nanny goat.

Probably I'd have gone to somebody like Roger Altman and Clark Clifford. If there was a rat there, they'd sure smell it.

Surely, I wouldn't depend on the fact that the federal banking authorities had nothing against these foreigners. Hell, for a long time they had nothing against Charles Keating.

Now, of course, Mr. Altman has just been acquitted of state charges involving his deals with BCCI, and assuming that both he and Mr. Clifford will not be further hounded by federal prosecutors, both men will stand criminally innocent.

We are entirely free to believe Mr. Altman when he says, "We represented BCCI and we thought it was a completely respectable banking institution, regulated by the Bank of England. If BCCI was a different organization than that, we never knew it."

Fine, then, they were deceived by wicked men throwing around an awful lot of money, men whose clients included dictators and drug barons but who were unrecognizable as villains because they were operating under the stamp of approval of the Bank of England. Of course, for all we know, the knaves at BCCI were assuring the regulators at the Bank of England that they were perfectly respectable because one of their partners was none other than Clark Clifford, the former United States secretary of defense.

Mr. Altman's lawyer, Mitchell Ettinger, described the case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau as "a theory in search of the facts." The jury, quite readily as it turned out, agreed. The prosecution case took five months and offered 45 witnesses. The defense introduced but three documents and not a single witness. Besides, First American Bankshares Inc., of which Mr. Clifford and Mr. Altman were chairman and president respectively, was not milked like the rest of BCCI's holdings. Even as BCCI was being looted of $12 billion, was defrauding 1 million depositors in Britain and the Third World, most of whom may get less than 40 cents on the dollar for their claims, its American holding, under the stewardship of Mr. Clifford and Mr. Altman, was growing in value.

But we are still left with bewildering questions about the quality of advice two of the nation's most expensive lawyers gave to themselves, advice which left them exposed to the conclusion that, innocent as they are before the law, they were as naked and vulnerable before the charms and money of bad characters as the rest of us. This is not exactly the sort of innocence we seek in good lawyers.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

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