WASHINGTON — THE United States Justice Department, long seen by federal, state, and congressional investigators as an impediment to the unveiling of the biggest bank scam in history, may soon go to trial with an unlikely partner: The Manhattan district attorney's office.
Earlier, that office forged ahead with its own probe of the rogue Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), despite foot-dragging by federal law-enforcement agencies.
The Justice Department, which opened its own BCCI case only after the banking scandal dominated the front pages of leading newspapers, now is apparently eager to convict prominent Washington lawyers Clark Clifford and Robert Altman. Separate indictments
Mr. Clifford and Mr. Altman, who resigned a year ago as the top executives at First American Bankshares Inc., were recently charged, in separate state and federal indictments, on charges including lying about First American's secret relationship with BCCI.
BCCI, which operated in more than 70 countries, is believed to have financed arms and drug trafficking, bribery, fraud, embezzlement, and a number of other crimes. Altman and Clifford are charged with receiving millions of dollars in bribes from the Arab-owned BCCI to further the bank's nefarious operations.
The New York-Justice Department relationship ironically emerges against a dramatically different backdrop. During the past several years, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau was one of a broad-based group of investigators - including former United States Customs chief William von Raab, Federal Reserve officials, members of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, and the House Banking Committee - who blamed the Justice Department for systematically ignoring or blocking their efforts to gather
evidence and summon witnesses against BCCI, and for only reluctantly opening, in February 1991, its own examination into the bank's improprieties. Cooperation cited
John Moscow, the Manhattan district attorney's chief of white-collar crime investigations and lead prosecutor on the BCCI case, told the Monitor this week that his office and the Justice Department are now "cooperating well." So well, in fact, that they are considering teaming up as joint prosecutors in their cases against Clifford and Altman.
Mr. Moscow and his colleagues in New York, who have spent more than three years going through 60 file drawers (with up to 8,000 documents per drawer) and interviewing some 120 witnesses before the New York grand jury during the past 16 months, were jolted by the news last week that the Justice Department trial was set for Oct. 26.
But, on Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the State of New York granted the Manhattan district attorney an even earlier trial date - Oct. 22 - just four days before the district court's scheduled trial.
Last week Clifford and Altman were arraigned in US District Court on criminal charges of conspiring to defraud the Federal Reserve Board. The defendants left the district court triumphant after they secured an unusually early trial date from the federal judge. The 85-year-old Clifford argued for a speedy trial, citing poor health and his desire for the earliest opportunity to clear his name.
Lawyers familiar with the case stress that the defense lawyers representing Clifford and Altman believe the federal government's case is weaker than evidence compiled by the Manhattan district attorney and are hopeful that a New York "double jeopardy" statute would prevent the defendants from being retried on the same charges in New York if the Justice Department lost its case in Washington.
Mr. Morgenthau's office has filed a broad range of charges against Clifford and Altman. The Justice Department approach is more narrow; federal prosecutors apparently fear that jurors will be confused by too much information.
"Ours is an easier case to try," claims Moscow, who has been trying cases with Morgenthau's office for 20 years. "It's simpler to try it chronologically rather than focus on certain events and try to prove their importance."
Selecting a jury will be a lot easier in New York than in Washington, he says, where Clifford and Altman are well known.
Joint prosecution offers the promise of pulling together the best evidence and witnesses from each camp.
While Moscow now talks about the merits of cooperation, the defendants underscore the prosecutors' competition as the driving force behind the indictments. "We've been caught in the competition by large, powerful government forces, each of which has been striving to demonstrate that its particular institution is out in front, exploring BCCI, exposing its wrongdoings," Clifford told reporters last week.
Clifford has stressed, as testimony to his credibility, his background as a leading Washington lawyer, former US secretary of defense, and major figure in the Democratic Party. His span of political influence ranged from the Truman administration through the Carter years. Clifford record cited
"A government that operates properly would not have attacked Mr. Clifford, an elderly man of integrity, a man who has served his country well for so many years," Clifford's young prot, Robert Altman, told reporters.
Referring to the charges against Clifford, US Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, who has led the Senate's BCCI probe for the past four years, says: "It is important for this process to go forward, and important ... to understand that it works for everybody and there aren't different standards by which we operate."