Trying Times for BCCI Defendant : Fraud case: Robert A. Altman prepares for a long summer defending himself against charges stemming from Bank of Credit and Commerce fall.

From Associated Press

For an attorney who once ran Washington’s largest bank, and defended the likes of Bert Lance and Jim Wright, Robert A. Altman has a daily routine that’s anything but rewarding and glamorous.

Since March, Altman’s life has centered around a small, dingy courtroom in lower Manhattan. Lawyers flagrantly disobey no-smoking signs in the hallways. Police and cuffed felons jam the elevators.

Throughout this coming summer and perhaps into the fall, Altman and his family will very likely face a grinding routine of intense, emotionally draining court sessions as he defends himself against fraud and bribery charges stemming from his relationship to the Bank of Credit and Commerce International.


BCCI, as it’s known, collapsed a few years ago in what is now considered one of banking’s greatest scandals. BCCI aides have been accused of crimes ranging from laundering drug money to financing terrorism. Billions of dollars in BCCI depositor money is missing.

Altman’s nights often are spent at his lawyers’ office, preparing for the trial. On weekends he grabs a shuttle flight home to suburban Maryland to unwind with his wife, actress Lynda Carter, and two young children.

A New York state grand jury indicted Altman last summer on charges that he and former law partner Clark Clifford engaged in an elaborate scheme to defraud bank regulators and allow BCCI to gain control of a major U.S. banking company, First American Bankshares Inc. In exchange, Clifford and Altman were paid bribes in the form of large legal fees and stock, prosecutors charge.

The trial, in New York State Supreme Court, is staggeringly complex, involving hundreds of documents and as many as 100 witnesses. Clifford, the powerful Democratic adviser, is not standing trial due to a heart condition.

Altman declined to be interviewed. But a picture of his personal life during the trial has emerged from interviews with friends and family members. Several spoke on condition they not be identified by name.

A typical weekday begins for Altman shortly before the trial’s 9:30 a.m. scheduled start. He arrives at court, well-groomed and generally wearing a finely tailored double-breasted suit.


Altman is closely involved in his own defense. During the trial, he confers regularly with his three-attorney team and joins them during the numerous private bench conferences with prosecutors and Judge JohK. Bradley.

In the courtroom, he’s stiff and reserved, displaying little emotion as he jots notes during the testimony.

When prosecution witnesses discuss Altman and BCCI’s alleged frauds, he occasionally glances at his wife or relatives sitting in the front row of the small courtroom gallery. Sometimes his eyes widen in apparent disbelief over what witnesses are saying.

At night, Altman frequently is at his attorneys’ offices in midtown Manhattan, working sometimes past midnight on his defense. Dinner ranges from deli food to pizza.

Altman and his wife occasionally visit friends in New York, but the couple often are worn out by a day in court. If they have any relaxation time during the week, they prefer to spend it at a Manhattan apartment they’ve rented for the trial’s duration.

Sue Cameron, a Los Angeles-area writer and family friend, said Altman’s spirits have risen in recent weeks as the trial progresses. She attributed part of that to the defense team’s aggressive cross-examination of government witnesses to undermine their credibility.


“I know Robert is very pleased by the way things are going,” Cameron said.

Altman’s friends and family say he’s been confident of exoneration from the beginning.

“Robert has always been extremely positive that his name is going to be cleared and the prosecution really does not have any evidence,” said Cynthia Greer, a friend and associate dean at Pepperdine Law School in Malibu.

Altman’s close relatives make a point of attending the trial. Besides Carter, Altman’s parents, Norman and Sophie, have sat through much of the testimony. Other members of the Altman family, many of them lawyers, often approach reporters during breaks, criticizing the prosecution.

Carter, who writes in a diary each day of the trial, occasionally wears a small silver heart on a necklace, enclosing mini-photographs of the couple’s children, Jamie Clifford Altman, 5, and Jessica Carter, 2.

“I know it’s very, very hard for Lynda to be away from Jamie and Jessica during the week,” Greer said.

Both the Carter and Altman families, as well as the couple’s friends, take turns baby-sitting at the couple’s Potomac, Md., home during the week.

Cameron, who recently completed a 10-day baby-sitting stint in Potomac, said the couple tries to resume as much of a normal life as possible during the weekends. They play with the children and friends and family members drop by. Sometimes Altman dons jeans and a chef’s hat for an afternoon barbecue.


Yet because of the frequent travel, the couple expresses frustration that they only have time to “feed the kids, look at the pictures from class they have painted and then get on the plane” back to New York, Cameron said.

Carter, best known for the television series “Wonder Woman,” and as spokeswoman for Maybelline cosmetics, has turned down an offer to appear in a new television pilot so she can attend the trial.

Altman and his lead defense attorney, Gustave Newman, urged her to take the part, but she refused, saying she would be uncomfortable doing so while her husband stood trial.

Despite the couple’s outward confidence, some friends worry about the prolonged strains.

“My concern is over time that the stress will build up it and will take its toll,” Greer said.