The scandal that won't go away

January 21, 1994

The BCCI scandal just won't go away. No sooner does it appear we have heard the last sensational development associated with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, along comes another. This time it is a multi-million-dollar deal with an Arab ruler that will open up a huge cache of information about the gigantic, world-wide swindle.

One of a prosecutor's favorite tools in a major case is what is known as "trading up." That means the prosecutors offer a deal to a less important defendant -- usually accepting a plea to a lesser charge -- in return for evidence incriminating a more important target. The deal concluded recently was a sophisticated refinement of the tactic.

Federal and New York State officials have traded dismissal of a $1.5 billion civil lawsuit and immunity from criminal charges here in return for the surrender of one of BCCI's two top officers. The banker, Swaleh Naqvi, has been secluded in Abu Dhabi with his voluminous records since the $20 billion scandal broke in 1991. The ruler of the Persian Gulf emirate, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, was the largest stockholder in BCCI.

The immediate payoff will be prompt access by U.S. investigators to Mr. Naqvi and his files. They are an investigator's bonanza because the founder of BCCI, Agha Hassan Abedi, has found sanctuary in his native Pakistan. Mr. Naqvi can be extradited to the United States, presumably to face fraud charges centering on BCCI's secret ownership of Washington's First American Bank. That's when some more "trading up" could begin.

Internationally the BCCI case involves billions of dollars stolen from depositors in the bank. In this country it centers on the deception of U.S. bank regulators. If there is any trading up by federal prosecutors with evidence Mr. Naqvi may provide, it will undoubtedly be aimed at Clark Clifford, the venerable Washington attorney and presidential adviser, and his protege Robert Altman. They are the kinds of targets that bring out the trading instincts in any prosecutor.

Mr. Altman has been acquitted in New York without even putting up a defense against charges he concealed the fact BCCI had illegally taken control of First American Bank. The 86-year-old Mr. Clifford escaped trial because of poor health, and the charges against him have been dismissed. But federal prosecutors have been waiting in the wings. Armed with Mr. Naqvi's evidence, they could open a new and even more sensational chapter in the world's greatest bank swindle.

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