BCCI: Gone but Not Forgotten

November 05, 1993

Neither giving bad advice nor being gullible is a crime, even for a high-profile Washington lawyer. Now that fraud charges in New York have been dropped against Clark Clifford in the BCCI scandal, he and his protege Robert Altman may have tarnished images but they are clear of criminal taint. With them goes whatever realistic chance bank regulators around the world had of getting inside the biggest financial fraud of all time.

Chances were slim that New York prosecutors would have pursued the ailing, 86-year-old Mr. Clifford following the acquittal last summer of his partner, Mr. Altman. The charges against them were the same, and a jury made short shrift of what was clearly an inadequate government case. In theory federal prosecutors, who deferred to New York authorities, could bring their own charges again. As a practical matter that is highly unlikely.

So Mr. Clifford and Mr. Altman stand innocent under the law. This is especially gratifying to the courtly Mr. Clifford, who came as close to being the supreme insider of the Washington establishment as any person alive. Starting with Harry Truman, he served as a valued adviser to every Democratic president since. His personal power and prestige were unmatched, until the Bank of Credit and Commerce International unravelled three years ago. As chairman of a Washington bank, Mr. Clifford assured federal regulators it was not secretly owned by BCCI, a shadowy institution based in the Middle East with very unsavory connections.

That leaves a lot of people justifiably puzzled how a seasoned operator like Mr. Clifford could have been so thoroughly hornswaggled. Now that there will be no trial of him, the question goes unanswered. Mr. Altman's trial was no help, since he did not even have to put up more than a token defense to beat the rap in New York.

Although no money was lost in this country, hundreds of thousands of depositors elsewhere lost billions of dollars in this massive fraud. They deserve a better explanation of how their money was stolen and how so many regulators failed to discover the fraud until it was much too late. There are some civil suits pending here and a criminal case against some BCCI officials getting under way in the Persian Gulf. They are not very likely to get to the heart of the scandal. That's not good enough.

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