Long BCCI Trial Comes Down to Finish Line
NEW YORK — OVER five months, the jury has heard 45 witnesses describe in detail the nation's banking laws and how they were allegedly breached.
The aim of the testimony was to show that Washington lawyer and financier Robert Altman helped the foreign-owned Bank for Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) illegally gain secret control of a Washington bank, First American Bankshares Inc.
Starting today, the jury will begin deliberations to decide if the state proved its complex case.
The jury's job will be somewhat easier since the presiding judge, John A.K. Bradley, on July 28 threw out four of the eight charges, including the allegation of bribery.
Mr. Altman, prot of Washington power broker Clark Clifford, who was chairman of the bank, still must wait for a jury to decide if he defrauded banking regulators by hiding the identity of the buyer of the bank in 1981. Mr. Clifford has had his trial indefinitely postponed for medical reasons. Altman faces a maximum of 16 years in jail and up to $20,000 in fines.
Legal experts say that the jury may be swayed by the judge's decision to reduce the number of charges.
"A juror does not have to be a genius to know that some of the things are no longer in the case," says Stephen Saltzburg, a professor of criminal procedure at the National Law Center at George Washington University in Washington.
However, the judge's decision may also make the case more focused. The prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney John Moscow, has been criticized for taking a scattershot approach.
"Most of the time you make the points powerfully as you put on the evidence so [that] as the jury hears the evidence, it becomes more and more persuaded," Mr. Saltzburg says. However, he adds, in complicated cases sometimes "if you throw enough in there, someone will say `Where there is smoke, there's fire.' "
Much of the evidence presented by the prosecutors was circumstantial. Altman's defense maintained that the evidence was a series of coincidences. Lawyers point out it is difficult, but not impossible, to get a conviction based on circumstantial evidence.
Altman's defense was successful at impeaching many of the prosecution's witnesses. According to U.S. News & World Report, 23 of the 45 witnesses were granted immunity. On the witness stand, they admitted to breaking the law, which hurt their credibility. "If someone is truly incredible you can end up with an acquittal," says Saltzburg.
An acquittal would not be surprising since Altman's lawyer, Gustave Newman, is considered one of the best criminal defense lawyers in the nation. At times during the long trial, he seemed to be more capable than the prosecutor of explaining to the judge the state's theory about the case and why potentially damaging testimony should be excluded.
"I have never heard of Gus Newman doing a bad job," states Howard Sirota, a New York lawyer familiar with regulatory and criminal law. As a law student, Mr. Sirota went to watch Newman try cases. "I just the knew the guy was magic," he recalls. Newman "oozes" personality, combined with a keen understanding of legal nuances.
Lawyers believe Altman has also benefited by having his wife, the actress Lynda Carter, sitting in the courtroom everyday. Ms. Carter, who played Wonder Woman on television, presents an image of wholesomeness.
"She implicitly vouches for him more than any wife would," Sirota says. Carter has also actively lent support to Altman when possible. After the judge dismissed the four counts, Carter helped hand out the judge's decision to reporters covering the trial. She and her relatives have been available to reporters to interpret key moments in the case.
Even if Altman is acquitted, his legal problems are not likely to be over. Altman and Clifford still face civil charges brought by the Federal Reserve Board. And, the US Justice Department will have to decide if it wants to refile federal criminal charges which were dropped in April. The federal charges focused more on the transactions as conflicts of interest while the state looked on some of the transactions as bribes.
The Justice Department has declined to comment on whether it will refile its indictment. However, there is bound to be pressure on the government. When BCCI went out of business, it recorded losses of $12 billion.
In an article in New York Newsday on July 28, New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau called the BCCI scandal "the world's largest recorded bank fraud."
Now, it is up to the jury to determine if Altman was responsible for any of it.