House Panel Grills Clark Clifford

WASHINGTON - Lawmakers from both parties attacked Washington power broker Clark M. Clifford and his protege Robert Altman on Wednesday, saying the two men must have known that Bank of Credit and Commerce International held a controlling stake in First American Bankshares Inc.

"Mr. Altman and Mr. Clifford are asking us to believe that when their house was on fire they didn't smell the smoke, feel the heat, or hear the alarm," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., at a House Banking Committee hearing. "Their explanation strains credulity to the breaking point."

But Mr. Clifford insisted that the First American board that he oversaw operated totally independent of BCCI.

"I give you my word under oath, at no time did we turn to them for a decision," Mr. Cliford said. "In the end, the board of First American and I made the decisions."

Allegation of Secret Control

Mr. Clifford, 84, was the first witness as House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez began his inquiry into BCCI, a Luxembourg-based banking company seized by regulators in July because of charges of fraud.

BCCI allegedly held secret control of Washington-based First American, of which Mr. was chairman.

Rep. Chalmers P. Wylie, R-Ohio, said the committee's task was to determine whether Mr. Clifford and Mr. Altman were "amiable dunces" or "sophisticated financial kingpins."

Looking committee members directly in the eye, Mr. Clifford vigorously defended his reputation. "I am going to work as hard as I can to preserve my good name. What I tell you today will be the total and complete truth," said Mr. Clifford.

He told the panel his relationship with BCCI began in 1978 when he met Agha Hasan Abedi, the company's founder, whom he characterized as a "man of considerable charm."

Letter Is Introduced

Mr. Clifford said there was nothing to tip him off that BCCI was a corrupt institution, and added that even the regulators were unaware of problems until recently.

To demonstrate this, he introduced a 1985 letter from Florida comptroller Gerald Lewis to Mr. Abedi. In the letter, Mr. Lewis stated that Mr. Abedi should consider expanding his banking presence to Florida.

Mr. Clifford also tried to dispel allegations that he made millions of dollars from questionable sales of First American stock.

Honesty and Ethics

He said he received a salary of $50,000 a year and Mr. Altman received no compensation other than director fees. He said his reward for building First American into a profitable institution was to hold stock in the company.

"We did not go into it on a money-making basis," Mr. Clifford said.

Mr. Altman, 44, accompanied by his wife, the actress Lynda Carter, also insisted that First American was operated "honestly" and "ethically."

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