Federal regulators and prosecutors are listening to tape recordings of more than 150 Riggs Bank board meetings as they investigate what role top executives, including former chairman Joe L. Allbritton, played in more than a decade of violations of anti-money-laundering laws at the company, according to five sources familiar with the tapes.
Despite earlier requests from regulators and Senate investigators for documents related to the violations, the bank did not discover the more than 125 tapes until recently, the sources said. The tapes are of board meetings at the bank and its holding company beginning at least as far back as 1989 and ending some time last year, according to the sources, who spoke on condition that their names not be used because of ongoing civil and criminal investigations.
Joe L. Allbritton, former chairman of Riggs, had all board meetings recorded.
(Riggs National Corp.)
On the tapes, Allbritton, who left Riggs's holding company board in May but remains its largest shareholder, makes what one source said were "derisive" remarks about federal bank regulators who were pushing the bank to correct years-long violations of money-laundering laws. Neither transcripts nor copies of the tapes were made available.
Recording and archiving conversations of board meetings is unusual, corporate legal experts say, because of the potential such recordings could be used against the company or its directors in a legal proceeding. Written minutes, often sanitized of colorful statements or even give-and-take among directors, are usually the only records kept of what board members say to one another.
Yet Riggs meetings were routinely recorded under Allbritton's direction, the sources said. While directors were informed once a year that their conversations could be recorded, a source familiar with the board said several directors expressed surprise that the recordings existed.
The recordings, stuffed in a box in Allbritton's Riggs office along with a cache of photographs of Allbritton with various associates and clients of the bank, were stumbled upon at the end of July by an employee who worked for Allbritton, according to sources. Sources also said Allbritton has hired a lawyer from Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP to represent him in connection with the investigations.
Riggs spokesman Mark N. Hendrix yesterday confirmed the existence of the tapes.
"To facilitate the keeping of the minutes of board meetings, Riggs has recorded its board meetings," he said. "Consistent with information requests, Riggs has provided the recordings to its regulators."
Paul Clark of Hill & Knowlton Inc., a spokesman for Allbritton and his son Robert, now chairman of the bank and its holding company, did not return repeated calls seeking comment on why Allbritton didn't disclose the existence of the tapes to federal investigators, including the U.S. attorney in the District, until a few weeks ago.
Failure to turn over the tapes sooner has angered federal investigators, including those working for the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations. For over a year, the subcommittee has been probing Riggs and its relationship with customers such as former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Saudi Arabian Embassy officials and the presidentof Equatorial Guinea.