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Drafts Show Allbritton's Pursuit of Pinochet

By Terence O'Hara
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page E01

When Joe L. Allbritton was chief executive of Riggs Bank, he received personal gifts from Augusto Pinochet and wanted the former Chilean dictator to visit the Allbritton horse farm in Virginia, according to drafts of letters from 1996 and 1997.

The drafts were found in the bank's investigation of the relationship between Allbritton and Pinochet, whose government murdered or tortured an estimated 3,000 political opponents over 17 years. It could not be determined whether the letters were sent.

Joe L. Allbritton hoped to host Augusto Pinochet at his horse farm in Virginia, according to draft correspondence uncovered in the Riggs Bank investigation. (File Photo)

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Riggs National Corp.
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Special Report: Riggs Bank
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Pinochet and the Law

Riggs Bank pleaded guilty to a felony in January, in part because it failed to report many years of suspicious transactions involving Pinochet's accounts, which the bank closed in 2002. Allbritton was chairman and chief executive of Riggs until 2001.

The two draft letters and memos do not show that Allbritton was aware of any illegal actions by the bank or its officers, but they indicate that Allbritton had a personal relationship with Pinochet and knew details of his business dealings at Riggs, according to sources who have read the documents. The sources who conveyed the documents' contents to The Washington Post did so on the condition they remain anonymous because of the continuing investigations by the Justice Department and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's permanent subcommittee on investigations.

The drafts were found several months ago as Riggs officials sought to unravel the long and complicated history of the bank's relationship with Pinochet and the Chilean military, said a source familiar with how they were found. The Senate subcommittee first made the relationship public in July, detailing several suspicious transactions undertaken by Riggs on Pinochet's behalf and efforts by Riggs officials to hide Pinochet's money from international prosecutors in 1999.

Since July, Riggs's internal investigators have discovered that Pinochet's relationship to Riggs was both deeper and longer than previously known, according to sources familiar with their findings. Since the July Senate hearing, Riggs has found photographs of Allbritton and Pinochet together and internal correspondence and letters to Pinochet and senior Chilean military officials that indicate Allbritton was personally involved in courting the former dictator as a Riggs client.

Allbritton wrote in a draft dated February 1996 and addressed to Pinochet that he looked forward to "expanding our cooperation" with him and the Chilean military, a major Riggs client since the 1960s.

"It's been well-documented that Augusto Pinochet was a customer of Riggs," said Mark N. Hendrix, a bank spokesman. "Beyond that, Riggs has no comment."

"Business people routinely write notes like these to customers and clients," said Paul Clark, a spokesman for the Allbritton family. "They do not reflect any special relationship."

A key question for the Senate subcommittee has been the extent of the Allbritton-Pinochet relationship. Numerous current and former executives have said -- in Senate testimony and in private conversations -- that they believed Pinochet was a favored client and friend of Allbritton's.

But Clark said last summer that Allbritton had met Pinochet twice, in a business setting during trips to Chile, and that Allbritton had no knowledge of any suspicious transactions involving the account. Another source close to the Allbritton family said last summer that Pinochet's and Allbritton's relationship was purely business and that the two men were not friends.

"I am also grateful for our thriving personal friendship which you have demonstrated through your gracious hospitality and stalwart support of the Riggs," Allbritton wrote in a draft dated November 1997, a year when Riggs was expanding its relationship with both Pinochet and the Chilean military. "I thank you for the marvelous gifts to both Barbie and myself, including the history books which I found fascinating."

"Barbie" is Allbritton's wife, Barbara, who was a director of Riggs Bank until early 2004,when she and her husband resigned as directors.

In the 1996 draft, Allbritton expressed his "profound thanks" for a reception Pinochet threw for Allbritton at a Chilean military academy where the men watched an equestrian demonstration by cadets. In his draft, Allbritton invited Pinochet and his wife, Lucia, to the Allbritton horse farm in Middleburg, Va. Allbritton also thanked Pinochet for "the superb cuff links you presented to me."

The letter and internal memos that were found do not mention the specific actions -- changing of names on Pinochet's accounts and the secret movement of Pinochet funds -- that were the primary causes of Riggs's guilty plea last month. Riggs pleaded guilty to failing to report suspicious transactions by Pinochet and another client, Equatorial Guinea.

Sources familiar with the drafts said their tone and language were similar to those Allbritton used in correspondence with other high-ranking government leaders among the bank's many embassy clients. From 1993 to 1997, Riggs was engaged in a concerted effort to improve and enlarge Riggs's relationship with the Chilean military, according to internal bank documents released by the Senate subcommittee. A key strategy, according to sources familiar with it, was becoming Pinochet's personal bank. Despite having left the presidency in 1990, Pinochet remained commander-in-chief until 1998 and senior military officers were intensely loyal to him.

The Chilean armed forces were depositors and borrowers at Riggs since at least the 1960s, and senior military officers, including Pinochet, kept secret accounts at Riggs as early as the 1980s, according to internal bank documents uncovered last fall. However, when Riggs ran into financial trouble in the early 1990s, senior commanders became worried about Riggs's safety and soundness and withdrew large amounts of money from the bank, according to internal bank documents released last year by the Senate subcommittee and sources familiar with the Chilean relationship.

At the same time, Allbritton decided to increase international private client and embassy banking. In 1994, Pinochet and his wife began reestablishing a private banking relationship with Riggs in Washington, which grew to include numerous accounts, certificates of deposits and two offshore trusts. By 2000, according to an analysis done at the time by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Pinochet had about $8 million at Riggs and was the fourth-largest customer relationship in the bank's international private banking department. By 2002, the Chilean military had one of the largest deposit and loan relationships at Riggs, sources said, totaling more than $100 million.

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