Panama Suing First American Bankshares

NEW YORK -- First American Bankshares Inc., a U.S. bank secretly owned by fraud-ridden BCCI, was a funnel for stolen Panamanian funds used as spending money in the United States by former dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega, Panama's government contends.

According to court documents filed by Panama in federal court in Miami, the money came from Noriega-controlled accounts with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International in London and was sent to BCCI accounts at First American.

BCCI then used the money in its accounts at First American to provide cash, buy airline tickets, and pay for limousines used by Mr. Noriega in the United States.

Role for Panama's Troops

Details of First American's alleged central role in the scheme have received little publicity.

Relying on BCCI, the documents show, Mr. Noriega started channeling funds out of Panama in 1982 from the military intelligence unit of Panama's National Guard. Mr. Noriega became head of the Panama Defense Forces and de facto leader of the country in 1983.

First American officials were not available for comment.

Panama has also contended that the transfers to First American violated U.S. law because BCCI concealed the beneficiary on mandatory cash reporting forms.

Racketeering Alleged

The bank records were contained in a civil suit, filed in Miami by Panama, that accuses First American of racketeering for helping distribute funds Noriega allegedly stole from the government.

Panama sued BCCI in December 1990 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, then amended the suit in June 1991 to include First American.

The suit alleges that BCCI used a complex network of branches and accounts in Panama, Washington, London, and New York to spirit $23 million in state funds out of Panama for Mr. Noriega and his family. Panama is seeking to recover that money.

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