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After Long Legal Delays, BCCI Trial Opens in N. Y.

IT is a trial about political power, foreign influence, and alleged corruption.

Starting tomorrow the state of New York will try lawyer Robert Altman, prot of Washington powerbroker Clark Clifford, for allegedly taking bribes to hide the true ownership of First American Bankshares, a Washington, D.C., bank.

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The New York charges allege that Mr. Altman, the former president of the bank, took bribes in the form of sham loans, stock deals, and legal fees in exchange for hiding the fact First American was owned by the Bank for Commerce and Credit International (BCCI), which failed in July of 1991.

BCCI was an Arab-owned bank, and it is illegal for foreigners to own United States banks. This will be the first US trial since BCCI's collapse.

Altman's law partner, Mr. Clifford, was the chairman and was charged at the same time but has had his trial indefinitely postponed for medical reasons. Altman's conviction, however, would discredit Clifford since a significant amount of the evidence is expected to be conversations Altman had with Clifford. Both men profess their innocence.

"This trial is about high drama in Washington and the tragedy of Clark Clifford," says John Coffee, a law professor at the Columbia University School of Law. He says the jury will be asked to decide if "someone with great charm and talent became a ... front man for a bunch of Arab crooks?" Clifford has a long history in US politics, including serving as an aide to President Truman and secretary of defense under President Johnson.

The state case against Altman and Clifford precedes a federal case, which is now scheduled for June in Washington. However, it will be postponed since the New York case could take five to six months to complete. The state case is considered more aggressive since it alleges that BCCI actually owned First American. The federal case has a more narrow focus, alleging that Altman and Clifford conspired to hide from federal regulators the the level of control BCCI had of First American.

To prove its case the New York state prosecutor, John Moscow, is expected to rely on a witness named Sheikh Kamal Adham, a relative of the Saudi royal family and former head of the Saudi intelligence network. Mr. Adham, who was supposed to be one of the investors in First American, has already pleaded guilty to state charges in the case. "Will he say, "Yes, I was a front man Arab investor, and Clifford and Altman knew, or will he be more ambiguous and say BCCI had a significant role in making decisions?"

asks Mr. Coffee.

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To try to prove that BCCI was in fact pulling the strings, Mr. Moscow is expected to call former First American officials. These officials are expected to testify that Clifford took them to London or New York to get BCCI approval to hire them.

These witnesses will be combined with reams of circumstantial evidence. This paper trail is a hallmark of such white-collar trials.

However, the key will be proving intent. "The state will have to prove that the defendant, Altman, knew of the true ownership by BCCI and that he acted intentionally to camouflage it because if he did not camouflage it the regulators would turn down the ownership under the foreign ownership rules," says John Markham, a former federal prosecutor who is now a professor at the University of Santa Clara Law School.

Proving intent is particularly difficult, especially if the defendant maintains his or her innocence. "The state cannot just show a reasonable person should have known someone is being defrauded," says D. Randall Johnson, a professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law. In cases such as this, Mr. Johnson notes, it is not unusual for the prosecution to be secretive about its case and the evidence.

"Discovery [the process of disclosing to opposing counsel what evidence will be presented] is much more limited," he explains. In fact, the case was postponed by a week after the prosecution delivered a truckload of documents to the defense lawyers while the jury was being selected.

The defense is not likely to make a decision about putting Altman on the witness stand until after the prosecution makes its case. If Moscow's case is strong, Altman will likely testify, Mr. Markham says.

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