NEW YORK - A jury acquitted Washington lawyer Robert Altman yesterday of a multimillion-dollar fraud that prosecutors said allowed the outlaw Bank of Credit and Commerce International to take over a U.S. bank.
Jurors found Altman, 46, innocent of four counts of engaging in a scheme to defraud bank regulators and of submitting false records for filing with regulators.
Prosecutors had charged the deceit allowed BCCI, whose customers included dictators and drug barons, to secretly gain control of a major U.S. bank, First American Bankshares Inc. of Washington.
Five other counts accusing Altman of engaging in a conspiracy with BCCI, taking bribes and falsifying business records had been dismissed earlier.
Both the jury and members of Altman's family erupted in cheers as the first of yesterday's verdicts was read in court.
Altman's wife, actress Lynda Carter, burst into tears, then leaped into her husband's arms moments after the jurors were excused.
"My husband has been innocent all along and 12 people just proved that," said Carter, who played "Wonder Woman" on television.
Altman thanked everyone in the courtroom.
"This is a prosecution that never should have been brought," he said. "The government put on a five-month trial and we put on a five-minute defense."
After the acquittal, Altman, his family and lawyers met the jurors in a courtroom hallway and a noisy, jubilant scene ensued.
"This man was innocent from the start, from the very first witness," said one of the jurors, Ricardo Palacio, an Internal Revenue Service employee. "There were no doubts in my mind."
The acquittal came after a trial that began in March and included testimony from 45 witnesses. Entered into evidence were hundreds of documents describing in painstaking detail BCCI's role in the 1982 takeover of First American Bankshares Inc. by wealthy Middle Eastern investors.
The verdict marks a setback for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, which was widely credited with breaking open the international banking scandal.
"We accept the verdict, of course. Justice has been served," District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said in a statement released last night.
"However, our investigation of BCCI continues," Morgenthau said.
Indicted with Altman in July 1992 were his law partner, former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford.
Clifford, a confidant to Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Carter, is recuperating from heart surgery and was found to be too ill to stand trial.
Clifford and Altman were attorneys for BCCI, the Middle Eastern investors of First American and senior executives at First American.
Prosecutors said Altman deceived state and federal regulators by concealing and distorting the role BCCI played in the 1982 takeover and subsequent operations of First American.
But Altman's attorneys argued he was made a scapegoat for regulators who sought to shift the blame for their inability to detect BCCI's financial links to First American.
They said regulators were told about BCCI's role as financial adviser to First American but didn't object until inquiries from Congress and the media.
"BCCI got no special treatment at First American," said Altman's attorney, Gustave Newman. Any contacts First American had with BCCI were legal and properly disclosed, he said.
Newman ridiculed the prosecution's claim that First American's board was controlled by BCCI's founder, Agha Hasan Abedi, and its chief operating officer, Swaleh Naqvi.
Frequent defense objections and complex, often circumstantial testimony dragged the trial out for months.