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the United States was inevitable, given Abedi's desire to make BCCI into a global bank, and the size and importance of the United States financial and banking markets. Since BCCI was undercapitalized from its inception, its success required constant growth as a means of filling the everincreasing hole created by its lack of capital and its operational losses. Securing a base in the United States was intended by Abedi from the beginning as a means of obtaining new opportunities for growth. The United States was one of the largest money havens for flight capital. It was also unique among banking systems in insuring deposits at a very substantial level for FDIC member banks. FDIC insurance made deposits in U.S. banks more secure than deposits anywhere else in the world. As a foreign bank, BCCI could not legally accept deposits from U.S. citizens, or itself become an FDIC member bank. But if BCCI could find a way to enter the FDIC system, it would be able to offer a whole new, and highly valued, service to its customers -- U.S. government guaranteed deposit insurance. Abedi decided that he would first acquire legitimate banks in the United States for BCCI, and then determine later how to merge BCCI
into them. BCCI's initial strategy for the United States was to infiltrate the U.S. banking system through purchasing beachhead banks in major banking centers, and then to expand the beachhead operations until BCCI had U.S. banking operations of sufficient size that they could ultimately merge with BCCI itself. Later, after state regulators in New York had proven resistent to BCCI, and BCCI had successfully acquired National Bank of Georgia and FGB/First American, this strategy was modified. BCCI expanded in the United States by opening BCCI branch offices in regions with significant populations from the Third World engaged in trans-national commercial activity, such as Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. BCCI's intention was to use these branch offices to feed depositors and banking activity to NBG and First American, expanding BCCI's activities through pushing deposits into the federal deposit insurance system. BCCI then formed an additional beachhead institution in California in 1985 through a nominee. By then, Abedi had decided that he would work systematically to integrate the various U.S. banks BCCI now secretly owned, until the survivor was strong enough and large enough to in turn purchase BCCI.(1) BCCI had significant difficulties implementing this strategy due to regulatory barriers in the United States designed to insure
accountability. These barriers included: ** a strong bias against any bank, such as BCCI, which did not have a primary regulator with the responsibility for conducting oversight on a consolidated basis of the foreign bank. ** requirement for certified financial statements from would-be foreign shareholders seeking to acquire a U.S. target. ** reporting requirements in take-over attempts of federally chartered banks, subjecting any shareholders seeking to acquire a bank to the diverse disclosure rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). ** prohibitions on the ability of a bank holding company, such as Bank of America of California, which still had a 28 percent interest in BCCI, from purchasing banks in other states, directly or indirectly. ** limitations against interstate banking and branching, which slowed the ability of BCCI's flag-ship U.S. bank, First American, to purchase the National Bank of Georgia, and prevented First American from integrating with any bank in California, such as the Independence Bank, as desired by BCCI. However, while these barriers did delay BCCI's purchases of banks in the United States, and the integration of its U.S. empire, they failed to stop the purchases. In the end, BCCI was
successful in acquiring four banks, operating in seven states and the District of Colombia, with no jurisdiction successfully preventing BCCI from infiltrating it. The techniques used by BCCI in the United States had been previously perfected by BCCI, and were used in BCCI's acquisitions of banks in a number of Third World countries and in Europe. These included purchasing banks through nominees, and arranging to have its activities shielded by prestigious lawyers, accountants, and public relations firms on the one hand, and politicallywell connected agents on the other. These techniques were essential to BCCI's success in the United States, because without them, BCCI would have been stopped by regulators from gaining an interest in any U.S. bank. As it was, regulatory suspicion towards BCCI required the bank to deceive regulators in collusion with nominees including the heads of state of several foreign emirates, key political and intelligence figures from the Middle East, and entities controlled by the most important bank and banker in the Middle East. Equally important to BCCI's successful secret acquisitions of U.S. banks in the face of regulatory suspicion was its aggressive use of a series of prominent Americans, beginning with Bert Lance, and continuing with former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford, former U.S. Senator Stuart Symington, well-connected former federal bank regulators, and former and current local, state and federal legislators.
Wittingly or not, these individuals provided essential assistance to BCCI through lending their names and their reputations to BCCI at critical moments. Thus, it was not merely BCCI's deceptions that permitted it to infiltrate the United States and its banking system. Also essential were BCCI's use of political influence peddling and the revolving door in Washington.
Decision to Enter U.S. By 1976, it had become clear to both BCCI and its U.S. partner, Bank of America, that their relationship was causing problems for both parties and might not long survive. Moreover, BCCI's top officials, especially Abedi, had come to believe that entry into the U.S. market in a manner that BCCI could control was critical. Since its creation, BCCI had been a bank whose deposits and activities were denominated in dollars. Its settlements with other banks were carried out in dollars. There were numerous inconveniences associated with BCCI's inability to conduct business in the U.S. itself, and its forced reliance on western banks like Bank of America to act as its correspondent banks for all dealings with the U.S. Moreover, given the hostile attitude of regulators in the United Kingdom, BCCI had to make sure it was not fenced out of expansion in the industrialized countries. If the Bank of England ever acted against it, and BCCI had no alternative site in a major western financial center, it might be destroyed.(2) Additionally, the U.S. was home to
numerous "high net worth" individuals from Third World countries, who could be induced to bank at BCCI. Unlike many countries, the U.S. had no restrictions on the movement of capital in and out of its borders, making it an attractive place to park BCCI's real financial assets. Finally, both Abedi and his key financial backer, Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi, may have had political motives to strengthen their position in the U.S. According to T. Bertram Lance, BCCI's initial partner in its most important acquisitions in the United States, both Sheikh Zayed and Abedi felt that BCCI could become a critical element in strengthening ties between the United States and their constituencies. As Lance described a meeting between him, Sheikh Zayed and Abedi in Islamabad, Pakistan in late 1977: Abedi was concerned about the shifting tides towards the Soviets in Afghanistan, Iran, India and the Mideast. Both Abedi and Zayed each expressed their concerns about the Arab worlds lack of ties to the US. They wanted to do something about it.(3) Friends of Lance told journalists at the time gaining access to President Carter and the White House was one of the explicit goals of doing business with Lance and one of the reasons the "Arabs" were interested in having Lance represent them and in buying his interest in the National Bank of Georgia.
An Atlanta source close to the negotiations says the Arabs see Lance as giving them access to the administration. Though a private citizen, Lance is a regular visitor at the White House and is the chairman of a $500-to-$1000a-plate fund-raiser for President Carter scheduled for January in Atlanta. "Under normal circumstances," says this source, "NBG would be the last bank anyone would be interested in. But the investors see this as an opportunity to do a favor for someone close to the President."(4) Initial Attempts to Enter U.S. BCCI's initial attempt to obtain a bank in the United States was notably unsuccessful. Initially, BCCI decided it would begin with a small acquisition, that of the Chelsea Bank, a national bank with a state-chartered holding company in New York. In order to keep the transaction low-key, BCCI decided to proceed through a nominee, a member of the Gokal family, whose shipping empire could be characterized as much BCCI affiliate as BCCI customer. Unfortunately, the nominee chosen had few resources of his own, and was a transparent alter ego for BCCI, prompting the very regulatory scrutiny in New York that BCCI had sought to avoid. As recounted by former Comptroller of the Currency John Heimann:
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