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Legal Woes Cut Into Bottom Line at Riggs

Embassy Banking Proves Costly

By Terence O'Hara
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 2004; Page E01

Riggs National Corp. said yesterday that it lost $10 million in the third quarter, largely the result of $13 million in fees for a small army of lawyers and consultants to help it navigate a growing list of criminal, regulatory and civil matters related to its past dealings with former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the government of Equatorial Guinea and Saudi Arabian diplomats.

The company also disclosed that a Spanish judge, who has been seeking to prosecute Pinochet and extract reparations for the torture and death of Spanish citizens under his rule, has added Joe L. Allbritton, former chairman and chief executive of Riggs, to the complaint as well as his son, Robert, who replaced his father at chairman and chief executive in 2001.


Much of the embassy banking business that is at the center of Riggs's multiple legal problems was conducted at this Dupont Circle office. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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Pinochet and the Law

Also named are Riggs board member Steven B. Pfeiffer, managing partner with Fulbright & Jaworski and one of the architects of Riggs's international business, and Carol Thompson, a former account manager at Riggs who handled Pinochet's accounts. A Senate subcommittee in July said Riggs had handled a balance of between $4 million and $8 million for Pinochet over an eight-year period ending in 2002.

According to Riggs's disclosure statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission yesterday, Judge Baltasar Garzon is seeking damages from the Riggs executives and directors for allegedly concealing Pinochet's assets. Garzon indicted Pinochet in 1996 for crimes against humanity, including genocide, torture and terrorism, and has been trying to seize his assets and bring him to trial ever since. In the fullest accounting yet of the legal entanglements that could complicate its pending merger with PNC Financial Services Group, Riggs also acknowledged that it is the subject of a criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia and the Department of Justice. Riggs said Justice subpoenaed information about Riggs Bank's dealings with Pinochet, the government of Equatorial Guinea and its overall compliance with money-laundering laws.

Justice has also asked for information about "the actions of various current and former employees of the company."

"Riggs is actively engaged with the appropriate regulatory and governmental authorities with respect to these matters," said Riggs spokesman Mark Hendrix.

In addition to the Justice investigation, the company is a defendant in a number of lawsuits, including one filed by victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Also, a pair of Senate committees continue to investigate Riggs's dealings with Pinochet, Equatorial Guinea and officials of Saudi Arabia.

In the meantime, the company's two main regulators, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Reserve, continue to examine Riggs's dealings, including its compensation of executive officers and the possible misuse of corporate assets, including the use of the former company jet and a luxury London apartment, according to the SEC filing.

The company allowed extensive personal use of a company-owned Gulfstream jet and the apartment to Joe Allbritton and his family until both were sold this summer. Analysts have said that Riggs's unfolding legal troubles might derail its pending merger with PNC Financial Services Group. PNC negotiated strict "material adverse change" clauses that would allow it to back out of the deal if Riggs's legal, regulatory or financial condition at the time of merger posed undue risk if it was assumed by PNC. Analysts, and executives at the company who spoke on the condition they remain anonymous because the merger agreement hasn't been renegotiated, expect PNC at least to negotiate a price below the more than $770 million it originally agreed to pay.

Officially, both PNC and Riggs say the deal is on track to be consummated by the first quarter of next year.

"Riggs is working vigorously with respect to the proposed transaction with the PNC Financial Services Group," Hendrix said. "Much of the media coverage recently has had a certain degree of speculative commentary. As a matter of policy, Riggs does not comment on speculation."

Riggs was fined $25 million in May for failing to comply with money-laundering laws and for failing to report tens of millions of dollars of suspicious transactions involving Equatorial Guinea officials and diplomats with the Saudi Arabian embassy. In July the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released details of Riggs's handling of Pinochet's money, including transactions that appeared to be designed to conceal millions of dollars from regulators and from Spanish officials seeking to freeze his assets. A separate inquiry by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is examining Riggs's handling of Saudi money.

Riggs's cooperation with the investigations has been extremely costly. In reporting its third quarter earnings, Riggs noted that it incurred more than $13 million in legal expenses, compared with $1.2 million in the third quarter last year. The expenses were the main factor behind a $10 million (33 cents a share) loss in the quarter, compared with a $139,000 profit in the same quarter of 2003. So far in 2004, Riggs has lost $40.5 million ($1.37), and logged $18.1 million in legal fees.


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