A federal jury awarded Kuwait Airways more than $750,000 yesterday in its lawsuit against American Security Bank to recover $2.5 million spent by a former airline official, who testified during the three-week trial that most of the funds went for secret CIA projects.
Robert Mario Sensi, the former Washington manager for the Kuwaiti government-owned airline who is awaiting trial on charges that he stole the $2.5 million from the airline using a special bank account, waived his Fifth Amendment right and testified for the bank in the separate civil case, ending a year's silence in the matter.
Sensi, 36, testified that the main CIA project, which he said was undertaken in late 1984 at the request of a top CIA official and another high-ranking U.S. government official, was to initiate contacts with moderates in the Iranian government. Sources have identified the CIA official as the late director of central intelligence, William J. Casey.
To bolster Sensi's claims that he had friends in high places, the jury was given photographs that showed Sensi with Republican politicians, diplomats and dignitaries, including President Reagan and Casey.
Sensi testified that he set up the account at American Security Bank in Nov. 1980 at the direction of Khalid Jaffar, who was then the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, as a mechanism to pay bills on behalf of the royal family. Also, he testified that the current Kuwaiti civil aviation minister, Sheik Jaber Athby al-Sabah, later approved his use of the account for CIA missions.
Sensi conceded that he personally had received money from the account, but he said he had "earned it" by putting in long hours tending to personal errands for the royal family.
The six-member jury was not told of the criminal charges pending against Sensi, but it apparently rejected Sensi's claims, though it was unclear which of several applicable legal theories it used in reaching the verdict.
U.S. District Judge Oliver Gasch, who presided over the trial, did not permit use of a special verdict form that would have required the jury to specify how its decision was made.
However, legal observers suggested that the jurors awarded Kuwait Airlines the amount of money that Sensi spent using the account before July 1984, when a routine airline audit uncovered the so-called 640 account. The name refers to the last three digits in the account's number. The airline's New York office, where Sensi reported, was told at that time that the 640 account had a balance of $92,000.
Dale Cooter, the bank's attorney, said during the trial that almost $2 million was spent using the account in 1985 and 1986, and that more than $1 million went to Iranian exile Habib Moallem and a front company established for the Iranian project.
The jury's verdict, which came after 1 1/2 days of deliberation, immediately brought complaints from attorneys for both sides in the case, who said they would seek to have the verdict set aside.
Thomas J. Whalen, an attorney for the airline, said he was "not particularly pleased" by the jury's finding.
Whalen had urged the jurors to find that Sensi had not been authorized to set up the account and that the bank had been negligent in not questioning Sensi about how the money in the account was being spent and where it was coming from.
Cooter had asked the jury to find that Sensi had direct or implied authority to open the account, or that the airline had "ratified" his actions when it failed to do anything about the acount after receiving the 1984 audit notice.
No date has been set for Sensi's trial on criminal charges. Staff writer Bill McAllister contributed to this report.