NEW YORK, AUG. 14 -- Washington lawyer Robert A. Altman was acquitted late today by a jury of eight women and four men of all charges that he deceived banking regulators in the BCCI case.
In an emotional scene, Altman closed his eyes and jurors as well as the Altman family cried as the jury's forewoman delivered the not guilty decision on one count of banking fraud and three counts of filing false documents with New York state banking regulators.
"This is a prosecution that should never have been brought," said a smiling Altman in the courthouse hallway. "I'm so grateful that in this system there are 12 Americans who are willing to sit there and listen and decide where the truth lies."
The verdict was a blow to Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, whose office has investigated the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and its network of relationships with prominent Arab and American investors for nearly four years.
"We accept the verdict of course," Morgenthau said in a statement issued shortly after the decision. "Justice has been served. However, our investigation of BCCI continues."
The jury rejected the prosecution's argument that Altman had knowingly engineered BCCI's takeover of Washington's First American Bank in what prosecutors alleged was an effort to evade U.S. banking regulations. They charged that Altman had profited from special loans from BCCI to acquire shares in First American while he was president of the bank.
The Altman verdict was seen as a vindication for his mentor and law partner, Clark M. Clifford. The 86-year-old former defense secretary had been charged in the same indictment with Altman last year, but he was not tried because he is recovering from open-heart surgery. Attorneys who have followed the case closely said Clifford is unlikely to be tried because of his age and poor health.
"You caught Clark Clifford at a very happy moment," Clifford said when reached at his Rockville home last night. "It is deeply gratifying. It's more than the end of a trial. It's the end of a two-and-one-half year nightmare."
Clifford said he was feeling "fair," though he still suffers from chest pains, and he said he hopes to be well enough to appear at a press conference next week with Altman.
The forewoman's voice broke as she delivered the second "not guilty," and other members of the jury wept openly as Lynda Carter, Altman's actress wife, cried and thanked the jurors. Altman, 46, embraced his lead defense attorney, veteran criminal lawyer Gustave H. Newman, and then his wife. His parents, three sisters and friends, stood in a circle and hugged one another in a scene of near-pandemonium until a bailiff asked for order.
After the verdict was read, Altman and Carter went around to the jury door and hugged and thanked the jurors as they came out.
Although Altman and Clifford were vindicated in this case today, their legal struggles are not necessarily over. Federal prosecutors dropped their similar criminal charges against the two men last April to allow Morgenthau's case to go first, but those charges still could be refiled.
"We will certainly review what happened in New York before we make a decision" about refiling charges, a Justice Department spokeswoman said tonight.
Clifford and Altman also still face a civil suit from the Federal Reserve Board and a private lawsuit from the board of directors of First American.
The jurors, who looked weary but exultant after a five-month stint, took four days to come to their decision.
They voted only twice: once when they began their deliberations and again at about 6:30 tonight when they reached a final verdict. Several jurors said there was little division among them from the beginning of their deliberations.
Comments from members of the jury suggested that the prosecution may have erred in relying on the testimony of former BCCI officials who were themselves under indictment, but became witnesses after making deals with the prosecution. Jurors said they had discounted testimony from these witnesses.
"I felt insulted" by the prosecution, said the jury's forewoman, Barbara Conley.
"What really killed me was when they brought over the guys from BCCI," said juror John Schaaf, a UPS driver who praised the work of the defense team -- Newman, William Shields and Mitchell S. Ettinger. "Everything fell apart on cross-examination," he said.
"I think their theories were strained from the beginning," said defense lawyer Newman of the prosecution. "There was no crime."
The prosecution, led by veteran assistant district attorney John W. Moscow, was under attack from the beginning of the trial for withholding information that the judge ruled the defense was entitled to, and for failing to make clear to jurors the complex financial issues in the highly circumstantial case.
Until questions arose publicly about the relationships between BCCI and First American in 1991, Altman's professional and private lives had a storybook quality about them.
Altman had attracted the attention of the Establishment lawyer Clifford in 1969, while Altman was a student at George Washington University Law School. Clifford, who had been a confidant of Democratic Party presidents since he first played poker with Harry S. Truman, invited Altman to join his small but prestigious firm.
Altman rose to become a partner and took on clients that included political insiders such as Bert Lance and Fortune 500 companies such as Knight-Ridder Newspapers Inc. and Schering-Plough Inc.
In addition, Altman and his wife became one of Washington's most socially prominent couples. The couple and their two young children live in a 20,000-square-foot Potomac mansion with a library, a fully equipped exercise studio, 15 bathrooms, servants' quarters, a tennis court and pavilion, a pool and a specially designed waterfall.
Carter, best known for her role as TV's "Wonder Woman," has been present in the courtroom throughout the five-month trial, sitting in the front row of the courtroom along with Altman's parents and one or more of his three sisters.
"He is indisputably innocent," said Carter after the verdict was delivered. " ... The only fraud that was committed here was by the D.A.'s office."
For more than a decade, Clifford and Altman had been at the center of a triangle of relationships involving BCCI, First American and their law firm, the now-defunct Clifford & Warnke.
They were BCCI's lawyers, the top executives and lawyers for First American's parent company, and representatives of the Middle Eastern investors who took over the bank in 1982.
Clifford and Altman had assured banking regulators that the walls between First American and BCCI -- a shadowy, virtually unregulated international bank that was closed by regulators around the world in 1991 -- would not be breached.
But prosecutors charged that Clifford and Altman deliberately misled regulators and profited from the relationship between BCCI and First American by making millions of dollars in legal fees from BCCI and receiving sweetheart loans to buy stock in First American. Clifford and Altman made a combined profit of $9.8 million when they sold most of the stock in 1988.
Prosecutors said in their closing statements that the goal of BCCI's founder, Agha Hasan Abedi, had been to build First American into a large and powerful U.S. bank that ultimately would be merged with BCCI.
Clifford and Altman, lawyers who had no experience in banking, became the chairman and president, respectively of First American in 1982. The two resigned from those posts under fire from regulators and their own board of directors in August of 1991. A court-appointed trustee, Harry W. Albright Jr., sold First American to First Union Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., earlier this year at the direction of federal bank regulators for $463 million.
Although depositors at BCCI around the world lost billions of dollars when the scandal-ridden bank was closed down in 1991, no depositors in this country lost money because BCCI was not allowed to have branches here.