Robert Altman’s defense attorneys came out swinging as his trial began Tuesday. They accused prosecutors of a cover-up and charged regulators with making the Washington lawyer a scapegoat in the BCCI scandal.
“The evidence will show he is being prosecuted for political reasons,” Gustave Newman, Altman’s lead defense attorney, told jurors.
Newman denounced the trial as a media show, saying U.S. bank regulators are attempting to vilify his client to deflect criticism of their own failings in the Bank of Credit & Commerce International affair.
“They want to forget it because they want to cover up their own misfeasance and malfeasance in the way they handled BCCI,” Newman said.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office offered a sharply different view on the opening day of the first criminal trial to arise from the 1991 collapse of BCCI, which served as banker to dictators and drug lords.
The trial, which could last for months, is expected to shed new insight into BCCI activities.
The case centers on an elaborate scheme by BCCI, considered one of the most corrupt banks in history, to illegally expand into the United States by purchasing a major Washington bank, First American Bankshares Inc., and acquiring National Bank of Georgia, once owned by former Jimmy Carter Administration official Bert Lance.
John Moscow, an assistant district attorney and lead prosecutor in the case, said Altman was part of a scheme to lie to bank regulators, depositors and wealthy Middle Eastern investors about BCCI’s clandestine role in acquiring control of First American.
In exchange, BCCI arranged for a favorable loan for Altman and his powerful law partner, Clark M. Clifford, for purchase of stock in First American’s parent company. Clifford and Altman earned profits of $3 million and $1.5 million, respectively, from the stock deal.
Also, their law firm billed BCCI, First American and related banks $16.8 million since the late 1970s.
“As part of the corrupt agreement, Clifford and Altman had this sweetheart deal,” Moscow told an eight-woman, four-man jury in New York state Supreme Court in Lower Manhattan.
Altman, dressed in a dark suit, appeared calm. His three sisters, parents and wife sat behind him, at times wincing as Moscow described his alleged crimes.
Altman faces state charges of fraud, taking bribes, false statements and falsifying business records. Each of the eight counts carries a four-year prison term.
Altman, 46, has been a longstanding associate of Clifford’s, the former defense secretary and a major force in Democratic politics. Clifford also was indicted, but his trial has been delayed because of his recent heart surgery.
Moscow said Altman and Clifford were central to the scheme and described what he called their multiple roles as attorneys for Middle Eastern investors who bought First American’s parent company, and as attorneys and officers for an offshore company called Credit & Commerce American Holdings.
Clifford served as chairman and Altman president of First American Bank from the early 1980s until 1991.