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How the BCCI Gained Friends in High Places

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On June 21, 1987, former President Jimmy Carter was the star attraction at a ceremony dedicating a rehabilitation center for former prostitutes near Bangkok. By his side was Agha Hasan Abedi, founder of the international bank that allegedly has assisted terrorists, drug traffickers, money launderers and spies.

During the mid-1980s, it was not unusual to find Carter and Abedi closely involved together in philanthropic endeavors throughout the Third World. Indeed, Carter frequently traveled the globe with Abedi, often flying on a customized Boeing 727 owned by the now-notorious Bank of Credit & Commerce International.

Abedi apparently earned Carter’s complete trust and friendship with gifts from BCCI of more than $8 million to support the former President’s humanitarian efforts. At the same time, Abedi’s high-profile association with a former U.S. chief of state provided the Pakistani bank executive increased stature in many of the 70 countries where his bank did business.

Even now that BCCI has been seized by bank regulators for allegedly defrauding depositors, Carter, who declined to be interviewed for this story, reportedly has told associates that he finds it hard to believe that Abedi was responsible for the many misdeeds that are being attributed to BCCI.

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“He (Carter) doesn’t like to believe bad things about people who have done good things,” says James Brasher, the former President’s fund-raiser. “But at some point, he’s going to feel terribly taken.”

Carter is not the only prominent figure--either in the United States or elsewhere--who may end up feeling “taken” by Abedi. All around the world, Abedi and representatives of the Abu Dhabi-owned bank developed close relationships with presidents, prime ministers, kings and other influential political figures, often by making contributions to their favorite charities.

In Britain, BCCI funded a research unit established in 1985 by Lord Griffiths, who was at the time a senior policy adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The bank also set up a charitable program in Zimbabwe for the Cambridge University Commonwealth Trust, of which former British Prime Minister Lord Callaghan is a trustee.

In India, when Abedi wanted to open a BCCI branch in Bombay, BCCI endowed a $10-million prize that went to then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

In the United States, so far, the list of prominent political figures who had some relationship with BCCI officials includes Carter, former Defense Secretary Clark M. Clifford, former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young and former Budget Director Bert Lance.

At minimum, these ties enabled BCCI to carry out its banking business without much political interference, according to investigators. In addition, BCCI’s association with top leaders gave it a high gloss of respectability that may have helped to divert attention away from its alleged involvement in money laundering, drug smuggling and arms dealing.

In the United States and Britain, law-enforcement investigators are known to be looking closely at relationships between BCCI and some prominent people, although no evidence has been produced that any top political figures acted illegally. Clifford, his banking partner Robert Altman and Lance are known to have testified before at least one of the several grand juries hearing BCCI-related cases in New York, Washington, Miami, Tampa and Atlanta.

In some countries, BCCI is believed to have corrupted national political figures. In Peru, for example, the international bank is widely believed to have assisted former President Alan Garcia in allegedly looting perhaps as much as $50 million from the treasury.

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The complete scope of the BCCI scandal is still unfolding. Investigators have found evidence that BCCI sought to conceal bad loans and other losses from bank regulators and that the bank was laundering drug money. But they are still looking into related allegations that the bank was an accomplice in other nefarious activities, including some that may have involved the CIA.

Carter’s relationship with Abedi is emblematic of the way BCCI bought respectability. As a former President, Carter is held in high esteem in many of the Third World countries where BCCI operated and he was able to introduce Abedi to world leaders such as Callaghan.

“There are some people (such as Carter) who by your association with them, you do yourself some good,” notes Brasher. “That’s the way I figure he (Abedi) used Jimmy Carter. . . . In many countries, (Carter) would give Abedi an advantage by being seen with him.”

In Bangkok, many government officials and diplomats were on hand the day that Carter and Abedi planted a mango tree to dedicate the Sasakawa Women’s Education and Training Center. It was covered by Japanese and Thai television news crews.

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But Bangkok was just one stop on a whirlwind tour around the world by Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, that included stops in London, Hong Kong, Tibet, Beijing and Moscow. Abedi, his wife and daughter accompanied the Carters throughout most of the trip.

Bill Kovach, then-editor of the Atlanta Constitution, who went on the trip at Carter’s invitation, recalls that Abedi’s personal airplane had two sleeping compartments--one used by the Carters and the other by the Abedis.

Kovach described it as “almost a social trip,” with big dinners scheduled at every stop. BCCI officials were always on hand to greet the plane. Carter and Abedi were clearly friends, he said, and Carter talked about the Pakistani banker “almost like a religious figure.”

In China, Carter and Abedi participated in the unveiling of a program for the handicapped that is headed by the son of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. In Bangkok, they had a ceremonial meeting with the king of Thailand. In Tibet, they met with the Panchen Lama, the No. 2 spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.

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As Kovach remembers it, Carter and Abedi were treated almost as equals by many of the government dignitaries they met on the trip. Abedi was excluded only when the meetings involved issues that Carter had been asked to raise with Asian leaders by the State Department.

By all accounts, the trip to Thailand, China and Tibet was no different than many around-the-world junkets that Carter and Abedi took together before the banker fell ill in 1988. Together, they visited Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Even after Abedi could no longer travel, the BCCI plane was made available to Carter for his trips.

What ostensibly brought Carter and Abedi together was a shared concern for the problems of developing nations. Abedi’s contributions were instrumental in the creation of Global 2000, Carter’s tax-exempt foundation designed to improve health and agriculture in the Third World.

Abedi impressed Carter as a “visionary” about Third World development, according to the former President’s close associates. His contributions were described by Brasher as a “critical link” that permitted Carter to raise millions more dollars for humanitarian projects, such as his efforts to eradicate Guinea worm disease in Pakistan and elsewhere.

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When Carter first told Abedi about the organization’s plans for a Guinea-worm eradication program, Brasher recalled, the Pakistani banker replied: “Fine, figure out how much it will cost. I’ll finance it.”

BCCI also contributed $500,000 in 1984 and 1985 to the Carter Center, the Atlanta headquarters of the former President’s activities.

The relationship between the two men was so cordial that when Abedi suffered a heart attack in February, 1988, Carter contacted heart specialist Norman Shumway at Stanford University Medical Center. At Carter’s request, Shumway flew to London to examine Abedi, and arranged for a close associate to perform a heart transplant operation.

Carter, who later visited Abedi during his hospitalization in London, was quoted at the time as saying that he had intervened because he viewed the BCCI bank executive as “one of the most unusual men I have ever met.”

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Abedi was introduced to Carter in 1981 by Lance, who resigned as budget director in 1977 after being accused of fraud in connection with his ownership of two Georgia banks. A year later, Lance sold his interest in the First National Bank of Georgia to Arab businessman Gaith Pharaon. Unknown to bank regulators at the time, according to bank records, BCCI actually held a controlling interest in the Georgia bank.

Lance, who could not be reached for comment, reportedly was retained by BCCI as a consultant after he sold the bank to Pharaon.

Pharaon had just arrived in Georgia in the early 1980s when Carter, who was defeated for reelection by Ronald Reagan in 1980, set out to raise money for his Carter Center, located on the grounds of Emory University. The former President naturally sought a contribution from Pharaon because--in Brasher’s words--"he was flashing a lot of money around.”

Many prominent corporations have provided financial support for the Carter Center, including the Times Mirror Co., which publishes The Times.

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But it was not until the spring of 1987 that Pharaon personally responded to one of Carter’s fund-raising appeals. He was invited to have lunch with the former President at the Carter Center and brought with him David Paul, owner of CenTrust Savings & Loan in Miami. Pharaon acquired 20% of CenTrust that same year.

At lunch, Pharaon, a Harvard-educated man whose father was an adviser to Saudi royalty, impressed Carter and his aides as “bright, articulate” and “extremely well-educated,” Brasher says. He told Carter how his father had once saved the life of the king of Saudi Arabia.

But Pharaon himself never contributed a cent to Carter’s philanthropic efforts. Instead, CenTrust made a corporate contribution of $100,000, which arrived with a note instructing Carter’s fund-raisers to “credit it to Gaith Pharaon.”

Like Abedi, Pharaon also did favors for world leaders. U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar twice took trips on planes that he believed were owned by Pharaon in 1986 and 1987.

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It was Pharaon who apparently introduced Abedi to Young, the former U.N. ambassador who served as mayor of Atlanta from 1982 to 1990.

During three years that he was mayor, Young’s consulting business received a $50,000 annual retainer from the bank for his advice and assistance in foreign countries. Young has acknowledged that BCCI officials also set up some appointments for him when he made trade missions to foreign countries on behalf of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

Young, who was not available for comment, became a consultant for BCCI after traveling to Africa on a trip with Carter and Abedi.

Knowledgeable sources say that Lance introduced Abedi to Clifford, the Washington lawyer and former secretary of defense who has served as adviser to several Democratic presidents. When BCCI sought to purchase a bank in Washington, Clifford and Altman were chosen as officers of the institution, which was renamed First American.

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Despite their positions at the bank, Clifford and Altman contend that they were unaware BCCI actually owned First American. BCCI bought it through proxies after the Federal Reserve Board had refused to permit the company to acquire a U.S. bank.

Brasher says Carter never had any inkling of wrongdoing by BCCI, nor did the former President ever believe that Abedi had any ulterior motive for supporting Global 2000.

“It wasn’t like we went to Las Vegas to meet this guy,” he says.

Nevertheless, Kovach, now curator of the Nieman Foundation, recalls that questions were raised about the propriety of Carter’s relationship with Abedi, even before a few BCCI officials pleaded guilty in Tampa, Fla., in early 1990 on money-laundering charges.

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Carter has never publicly questioned the actions of BCCI. In an interview with the Atlanta Constitution shortly after the guilty pleas, Carter dismissed it as an “unfortunate incident” involving “a few unsavory characters.”

Terry Adamson, Carter’s lawyer, says that the Carter Center operates like most other charitable organizations, relying primarily on newspapers to check the credentials of potential donors. “We aren’t going to knowingly take any dirty money,” he says.

Adamson disagrees with the notion that Abedi took advantage of Carter. He notes that many Third World countries have benefited from Carter’s endeavors that were funded by BCCI. “We’ve taken advantage,” he says. “We’ve taken advantage of the money and put it to good use.”

Perez de Cuellar says it would have been impossible for anyone in his position to anticipate such a scandal involving BCCI. “You know,” he says, “you could not guess then whether people are involved or not in this kind of business.”

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