THE BCCI AFFAIR
Introduction and Summary of Investigation
BCCI cannot be taken as an isolated example of a rogue bank, but a case study of the vulnerability of the world to international crime on a global scope that is beyond the current ability of governments to control. Its multi-billion dollar collapse is merely the latest in a series of international financial scandals that have bedeviled international banking this century. Its techniques and its associations with government officials, intelligence agencies, and arms traffickers, were neither new nor unique.
For example, as far back as the 1920's, the International Match Corp bilked shareholders and lenders out of some $500 million through switching company assets and liabilities among a series of shell entities, creating fictional assets when existing ones were adequate, and through transferring funds from the United States offshore. All the while, its chairman, Ivan Kreuger, maintained friendships with numerous world leaders including then U.S. President Herbert Hoover, in a manner reminiscent of BCCI's founder Agha Hasan Abedi's relationships with President Carter a half a century later.
During the 1960's, the Channel Islands off the coast of England became the host to a series of post-off box banks, including the infamous Bank of Sark, whose facilities including a room over a pub, a desk and a telephone. That headquarters proved adequate to enable the swindlers who established the bank to use it to sell some $100 million in fraudulent checks and letters of credit on the phantom bank before their criminality was discovered.
In the same period, Bernie Cornfeld, chairman of the Investors Overseas Service (IOS), which sold "The Fund of Funds," and fugitive financier Robert Vesco, siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars from investors in the mutual fund that at its height had $3 billion in assets under its management. In doing so, it moved funds held at Credit Suisse to a small bank which IOS itself owned based in Luxembourg, from which the funds disappeared. Again, this technique anticipated the methods used by BCCI to shift assets from legitimate institutions to its own, and then to engage in wire transfers sufficient to make them impossible to track.
Similar techniques were used by Italian financier Michele Sindona in connection with his management of Banco Ambrosiano in Italy; and by former CIA agent Michael Hand in the drug money laundering Nugan Hand Bank in Australia during the late 1970's and early 1980's. The latter institution had numerous ties to U.S. intelligence and military personnel which have never been explained.
Thus, the rise and fall of BCCI is not an isolated phenomenon, but a recurrent problem that has grown along with the growth in the international financial community itself. Given the extraordinary magnitude of international financial transactions -- which amount to some $4 trillion per day moving through the New York clearance system alone -- the opportunities for fraud are huge, the rewards great, and the systems put in place to protect against them, far from adequate, as this report demonstrates in some detail.
The scope and variety of BCCI's criminality, and the issues raised by that criminality, are immense, and beyond the scope of any single investigation or report. This report, the product of some four years of investigation by the Subcommittee, while extensive, can merely provide a basic guideline to the fundamental facts and issued raised by the BCCI affair.
The Subcommittee investigation of BCCI began in February, 1988, early in the second year of a two-year investigation of the relationship between drug trafficking to U.S. foreign policy and law enforcement that had been authorized by the full Committee. During a hearing on General Noriega's drug trafficking and money laundering, BCCI was identified as facilitating Noriega's criminal activity. In March, 1988, the Foreign Relations Committee authorized the issuance of subpoenas to BCCI and those at the bank involved in handling Noriega's assets, and the accounts of others in Panama and Colombia. Service of those subpoenas was delayed, at the request of the Justice Department and U.S. Customs Service, due to concern that its service could interfere with an ongoing sting operation of BCCI in Tampa, Operation C-Chase. By the time the Subcommittee secured the permission of federal authorities to move forward with service of the subpoena, in late July 1988, the Subcommittee had completed the public hearings in connection with its investigative mandate, and was proceeding to complete its final report, with no further investigative efforts planned.
However, service of the subpoena set into motion a series of contacts during the late summer and early fall involving the Subcommittee, BCCI officials, and BCCI's attorneys, including Clark Clifford and Robert Altman. During those contacts, BCCI officials advised Subcommittee counsel Jack Blum that in their view, BCCI and its attorneys were obstructing the Subcommittee's efforts to investigate the bank. The Subcommittee conducted a deposition of one key BCCI official, Amjad Awan, shortly before his arrest in the Customs' sting, and deposed a second, former BCCI officer following the sting, during the final days of the authorization given the Subcommittee by the Foreign Relations Committee. Thus, as the two-year investigation of the Subcommittee authorized by the Foreign Relations Committee ended, investigating BCCI remained a major piece of unfinished Subcommittee business.
In the spring of 1989, Senator Kerry, chairman of the Subcommittee, authorized Blum as he was leaving the Subcommittee, to provide the information he had developed to the Justice Department. After the Justice Department, in Blum's view, had failed to follow up on the information provided, he took the same information to New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who shortly commenced his investigation of BCCI, based in substantial part on the leads provided him by Blum and the Subcommittee.
In the meantime, Senator Kerry asked two members of his personal staff to continue the investigation from within his personal office until such time as further authorization might be granted from the Foreign Relations Committee, or another Committee of formal jurisdiction for a committee investigation.
During 1989 and 1990, staff in Senator Kerry's office had numerous contacts with BCCI's attorneys, certain BCCI customers, and, in a truncated fashion, with BCCI officials, in an attempt to determine whether allegations concerning BCCI's secret ownership of First American Bankshares were correct, and as part of an effort to identify the extent and nature of BCCI's support of drug money laundering.
In January, 1990, when the Justice Department entered into a plea agreement with BCCI, Senator Kerry criticized the plea agreement for permitting BCCI to avoid trial, and the $14 million fine as insufficient punishment for an institution which had a corporate policy of laundering drug money. At the same time, the Subcommittee published a report on drug money laundering which focused in part on further questions concerning BCCI, including BCCI's alleged secret ownership of First American.
During the spring and summer of 1990, the Senator Kerry's staff conducted further investigative efforts concerning BCCI, met with BCCI's and First American's attorneys on several occasions attempting to obtain BCCI documents. In July, 1990, Senator Kerry, in his capacity as chairman of the Subcommittee, scheduled hearings on BCCI which were postponed after BCCI's attorneys and the Justice Department advised staff that each of the requested witnesses, including BCCI attorney and First American President Robert Altman, would decline the Subcommittee's request to testify.
After efforts to obtain authorization for the investigation within the Banking Committee failed, Senator Kerry decided in early 1991 to formalize the personal staff investigation within the Subcommittee and to seek formal authorization for an investigation from the Foreign Relations Committee, which was granted on May 23, 1991, without dissent. Together with this authorization, the Foreign Relations Committee authorized the issuance of a subpoena to BCCI for records pertaining to its dealings with foreign officials of a number of countries, arms dealers, and focusing on its secret ownership of U.S. financial institutions. At this time, Senator Kerry was joined in further investigative efforts by his ranking member, Senator Brown.
While the Foreign Relations Committee provided consistent support for the Subcommittee's efforts through 1991 and 1992, staffing resources for the investigation remained limited, amounting to two attorneys, with no budget for travel. The lack of resources particularly hampered efforts to investigate matters pertaining to BCCI's activities outside the United States.
Authority for subpoenas and writs were granted by the Committee to the Subcommittee on May 23, 1991, November 27, 1991, February 29, 1992, June 4, 1992. In all, the Subcommittee conducted thirteen days of public hearings, on August 1, 2, 8, October 18, 22, 23, 24, 25, and November 21, 1991; February 19, March 18, May 14, and July 30, 1992; one day of closed hearings, on October 31, 1991 and staffed an additional day of hearings in the Senate Banking Subcommittee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs on May 23, 1991.
Both by subpoena and by request, documents were received from many institutions, agencies and individuals, including BCCI itself; many of BCCI's attorneys and law firms; many former BCCI officials; representatives of BCCI's creditors and depositors; Price Waterhouse, BCCI's accountants; Clark Clifford and Robert Altman; the First American Bank; the Federal Reserve, Office of Thrift Supervision, Resolution Trust Corporation, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Majority Shareholders of BCCI (Abu Dhabi), the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Customs Service, the State Department; the Department of Agriculture; former federal prosecutors and investigators; and many others.
In addition, the Subcommittee has been vitally assisted by certain BCCI insiders who, while still working at BCCI during the period of its operation, became sufficiently angered and disgusted by what they had observed that they contacted the Subcommittee and agreed to provide the Subcommittee with information on an ongoing basis. These insiders helped the Subcommittee to document improprieties involving BCCI's attorneys, senior officers, and shareholders, as well as, certain failures to act on information by federal law enforcement.
Many matters remain to be investigated, and these are outlined in the Executive Summary and in the final chapter on conclusions and legislative recommendations.
What is absolutely clear is that the United States needs to exercise far more leadership in helping develop a system for monitoring and regulating the movement of funds across international borders to replace the current, inadequate, patchwork system that BCCI, with all of its faults, so aptly took advantage of to defraud over one million depositors and thousands of creditors from countries all over the world.
Equally important is for the United States to give renewed attention to the difficulty of monitoring the actual circumstances and intentions, of foreign investors seeking to acquire U.S. institutions. As the BCCI case demonstrates, such investments pose special difficulties for both investigation and prosecution should something go wrong.
Finally, influence peddling, the revolving door, and the willingness of well-placed and prominent people in Washington to provide services to whoever wants in the door and is willing to pay ones fees is a phenomenon that poses very substantial dangers for our system of government. As the BCCI case suggests, higher standards of conduct by the private sector in Washington that lives alongside of government is an essential part of making it possible for government to work. The lack of those standards was a significant factor in BCCI's success in committing crimes, and the government's failures in doing anything about them.