Attorney Robert Altman's role in the trial defense of Bert Lance was described incorrectly Monday in Washington Business. Although Altman's firm represented Lance on a number of charges of financial impropriety, the trial was handled by Atlanta attorney Nicholas Chilivis.
One wonders where Robert A. Altman finds the time.
Some days he spends as a Washington superlawyer, representing clients such as IBM, General Foods and the drug industry before regulators and on Capitol Hill.
On other days he becomes president of First American Corp., the holding company for the second-largest group of banks in the Washington area, whose takeover he engineered for Middle Eastern investors a few years ago.
Still other days, Altman oversees his real estate investments, including the USA Today tower in Rosslyn and its twin now under construction.
And on weekends, he jets to California to spend time with his wife, television actress Lynda Carter.
Altman may not be as well known as Carter, TV's "Wonder Woman," or even as familiar as Clark Clifford and Paul Warnke, senior partners of the Connecticut Avenue law firm in which he is a partner.
But at 37, the diminutive Altman has become a big man in this town, where law, real estate and banking are among the most powerful of the power industries, and success in any one of them is enough to confer superstar clout.
How does he find the time? "Long hours," he says with a thin smile. "Very long hours."
Altman is that seemingly rare beast, a Washington native. His father, trained as an attorney, has considerable real estate investments in the area, and his mother owns a local television production company.
Since he joined Clifford & Warnke out of George Washington University law school in 1971, Altman has developed a knack for winding up on the right case at the right time. He successfully defended embattled Bert Lance in 1977 against charges of financial impropriety; he overcame huge odds to win First American -- then known as Financial General Bankshares -- in one of the most celebrated takeover battles ever; and under his stewardship, First American has become one of the nation's most aggressive and fastest-growing banking organizations.
"I think I have been most fortunate in the opportunities that have been presented to me," he says.
As a lawyer, Altman usually is hired to "work" Washington on behalf of corporate or international clients, an activity in which Clifford & Warnke, one of Washington's smaller (20 lawyers) big-name firms, specializes.
He won't name his clients, other than to say that many are prominent members of the Fortune 500, but he has appeared on behalf of IBM, Eastman Kodak, Phillips Petroleum and General Foods, among others. His services for them range from litigation to lobbying, although, he says of the latter, "not nearly as much as people generally perceive."
The kind of law Altman and his firm practice often goes on behind the scenes, and can rely on personal connections and contacts -- the kind of clout senior partners like Clark Clifford, a former secretary of Defense, and Paul Warnke, a former arms-control negotiator and Pentagon chief counsel, can provide. Yet Altman rankles at the suggestion that he is some sort of Washington "fixer" for his corporate clients.
"I personally don't know of any matter that was 'fixed,' " he says. Rather, he says, his knowledge of how Washington works -- and who works it -- lets him give his clients "a judgment as to what you need in order to be successful. You know who you have to talk to," he says.
To represent a wide variety of clients with an equally broad set of interests requires that Altman and his colleagues maintain contacts and expertise in a large number of areas.
"We happen to believe that there is a real advantage to having a breadth of experience," Altman says. "There is a real value in having a perspective, so that as you look at a problem you can see that you're going to have a public relations problem here, you're going to have likely litigation -- or at least litigation is one avenue of relief for you -- here, we can move up to the Hill and attempt to do something there."
Such a practice can win a lawyer plenty of behind-the-scenes praise, but not much notoriety. Altman doesn't really seek publicity, but he got it when he took on Bert Lance as a client. Representing Lance catapulted Altman, then just 30, into the big time of Washington lawyers -- the kind whose calls to the government always get returned.
Lance, director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Carter administration, came under fire in the summer of 1977 for alleged financial improprieties while president of the National Bank of Georgia. He was summoned before a Senate committee for questioning in mid-September, and hired Clifford & Warnke to represent him. Altman handled the bulk of the case.
"We knew that it was not going to be an easy case," Altman says. "The charges just continued to accumulate, so that every day, while you were working on what you thought were the main issues for the hearing, that evening . . . The Washington Star would carry a story of something new which had come up, and then you'd read in The Post the next day a lengthy account of new charges which had been brought the previous day, so that one day you'd have a charge of tax evasion, tax fraud -- one day we had a charge of embezzlement -- and all this was in addition to the basic subjects, what we had thought to be the subjects of the hearing."
The list of charges was pretty long by the time Lance testified. But Altman conducted what he calls a "fairly aggressive" defense before the Senate committee, and public opinion seemed to rally in Lance's favor. Still, Lance was forced to resign, and he later was indicted on 33 assorted counts of financial impropriety. Again, Altman defended him, and Lance went free: 21 of the charges were dismissed, nine ended in acquittal and three wound up with hung juries. Investigations of Lance by several government agencies also failed to find anything conclusive against Lance. "That was a long, long haul, a long haul for him, a long haul for us," Altman says.
The Lance case established Altman as a force to reckon with in the Washington legal community. But his next "long haul" case would give him equal stature in Washington's business arena -- albeit quite by happenstance.
Once again, Lance was involved, but he had no bearing on Altman's participation. Lance had recommended to a friend who was a financial adviser to three Middle Eastern businessmen that they invest in Washington-based Financial General Bankshares Inc., which owns banks in the District, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee and New York. The investors, from Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, quietly bought some stock in the company in early 1978 -- and all hell broke loose.
Financial General's management, already troubled by internal dissension, charged in a suit in federal district court that the investors were acting in concert without filing the required documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The Middle Eastern investors hired Altman to defend them, a job that arose from Altman's international practice rather than his relationship with Lance, he says. In fact, he had to check with Lance to make sure there was no conflict of interest in accepting the case.
He also had to check another possible conflict with his Arab clients: his religion. Altman is Jewish, a fact that made no difference to the investor group. "It's perfectly satisfactory and it's well known to them," he says. "As a matter of fact, I think they're a little amused by it."
Faced with the suit, the three investors decided to seek a complete takeover of Financial General. "From a business standpoint, the investors concluded that their interests could only be served if they then proceeded to do something they had not originally intended to do at all -- it had never even been in their thinking -- and that was to acquire control of the company," Altman says. "It proved to be a very interesting experience. . . . The case went hot and heavy for years."
Martin Thaler, an attorney for the Financial General management group, says Altman was an "indefatigable" opponent, given to imaginative tactics.
The four-year fracas remains one of the most complicated and lengthy corporate takeover battles ever. Among other things, it shattered the unwritten assumption that, because of the need for regulatory approval, a bank could not be bought out in a hostile takeover -- especially when it was a bank regulated by so many different states.
The three investors mounted a proxy challenge to Financial General's management, asking shareholders to vote their preference about who should be running the company. The investors lost, but the vote was so close that the company's management decided to throw in the towel, and the Middle Eastern investors bought Financial General in 1982 for a bit more than $200 million, renaming it First American.
The Financial General case included another controversial angle: the question of Arab ownership of a bank in the nation's capital. Here the Washington connections of Altman and Clifford came into play.
Altman says the firm "checked with some of the most senior government officials to find out whether this would be in conflict with U.S. policy or whether it would be contrary to the economic interests of the United States -- something we would be sensitive to on any kind of foreign representation." This was a particularly sensitive subject in 1978, with oil supplies from the Middle East tightening again and anti-Arab sentiment running high.
But Altman's and Clifford's contacts gave them a green light. "We were not only advised that it would not be inconsistent with U.S. interests, but we were encouraged to take this on as being quite valuable to the United States were we able to do it," he says.
The reasoning, the lawyers were told, was that the United States is shipping tens of billions of dollars to the Middle East each year for crude oil, and getting little of it back. "So there was a strong desire to come up with a vehicle, a way upon an acceptable basis to the United States to have those funds return to the United States," Altman says. "This is the concept -- to create a model for Arab investment in the United States, one that is acceptable to Americans and also an attractive business opportunity."
To date, the model seems to be performing as planned. "Our clients have been very satisfied with this arrangement," Altman says.
Under the arrangement, the Middle Easterners are passive investors, leaving the entire management of the operation to Americans. Which is how Robert Altman, Washington lawyer, became a part-time banker.
"Our investors came to us and said that now that we had acquired this property for them, they wanted us to oversee it," he says. "We suggested that what they really needed was professional banking management. We were lawyers. We were not trained as bankers."
But the new owners prevailed, and Altman became president -- with Clifford as chairman -- of First American. While experienced bank executives run the day-to-day operations of the company, Altman says he has become increasingly involved with laying strategy for First American's growth in the rapidly changing banking environment.
"There was an old line -- all you had to know about banking was 6-4-3: You loan at 6 percent, you pay 4 percent on deposits and you're on the golf course at 3," Altman says. "No longer."
Altman believes that he and Clifford, as non-bankers, have an advantage in running the company. "We are not tied to the old ways of doing things, and when we look at a problem, often we find that we bring a somewhat fresh perspective to it, or we come up with a somewhat different way of doing it," he says.
The company has moved quickly to capitalize on its ability to branch across state lines, saturating the Washington market, Maryland and Virginia with First American branches. It is now starting to do the same in New York, with help from $100 million pumped into that operation last year by the Middle Eastern owners, says Altman. Last Friday, First American announced it had purchased 33 Bankers Trust branches in upstate New York. The bank is building a commercial lending business and strengthening its international and trade-financing operations.
"We intend to develop one of the most successful banking organizations in the United States," he says. "We have in mind some rather dramatic changes in this company; we have in mind some ambitious growth targets; we have in mind getting into certain kinds of businesses which only some of the larger banks in the United States currently seem to do. It is our intention that this will become an unusually attractive and successful banking operation."
First American already shows signs of success. Third in the Washington market when purchased by the Middle Eastern investors, it is now second in total assets -- including its New York operation -- with $4.5 billion, ranking it well ahead of American Security Bank ($3.8 billion) and just behind the Washington leader, Riggs National Bank ($4.6 billion). First American's total assets grew 41.2 percent last year, income was up nearly 30 percent, and the company was on a list of the world's 15 fastest-growing large banks.
For Altman, First American has meant a reordering of personal priorities. He says he is now more banker than lawyer. "It takes an enormous amount of time," he says, "because we're very active in all phases of policy making, strategic planning, and budgeting."
In managing the bank, Altman draws on skills different from those he uses as a lawyer. But he is not an alien in the business world. "I've always been involved in business in one way or another," he says. "I very much enjoy business, and banking -- make no mistake about it -- is a business today, like anything else."
Altman has long been active in the family real estate business and has other real estate investments around the country. "I like real estate as a diversion," he says. "It's a nice sideline."
And no doubt a lucrative one. In fact, with his real estate holdings, his law practice and his role at First American, Altman is undoubtedly a very wealthy man. And his marriage to Carter last January made him half of a very well-off two-income couple.
Many Washington insiders believe that Altman, like his mentor, Clifford, will take on yet another career in the next few years: some sort of high-level post in the federal government's executive branch. He doesn't rule it out. But Altman says he's perfectly happy with the full schedule he already has.
"I expect that what I will be doing in a few years , leaving aside any government service I might be asked to render, would not be very different from what I'm doing now," he says. "I very much enjoy banking and finance; I very much enjoy the law; I enjoy life in Washington. . . . If things went along just as they are, that is, doing the same kinds of things 10 years from now, I will consider myself very fortunate."