April 07, 2007

BCCI in the news again

Every once in a while a law case I worked on years earlier reappears in the news. This time it's about the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (here) and (here). The current news article suggests that in the old days the CIA used the bank to run guns to Saddam Hussein, to finance Osama bin Laden, to move money in the Iran-Contra operation, and to carry out other black ops. I am not competent to comment on these suggestions, but just seeing BCCI in the news again brought back some old memories.

Back in 1988 BCCI was clearly in trouble and by 1991 New York District Attorney Robert Morganthau indicted the bank, charging it with money laudering and a number of other crimes. Linguists love to have lots of data to work with so, when BCCI's Washington DC based attorneys, Lawrence Barcella and Lawrence Wechsler, called me to help analyze over a thousand tape recorded conversations gathered by the government against their client, BCCI, I took a deep breath and eagerly dived in.

The recorded conversations were of many BCCI banking officials from many different countries and with different degrees of competence in speaking English. As is common with undercover tapes, many were badly recorded and hard to hear. This meant that I had to listen to them over and over again but even then I found many parts that were inaudible. Today, I can't recall the exact number of hours I spent trying to figure out what was being said, but it was a lot.

The lawyers and I decided to meet twice a month about whatever I found on the tapes during that period. The government had provided its own version of transcripts of the tapes but, as usual, when I checked the transcripts with the tapes, I found many, many errors in them. Unfortunately for the defense, the clear parts of the tapes seemed to make any viable defense of the bankers difficult, if not impossible. In our first meeting after I began my work, I could show them my corrections to the transcripts but there was nothing that was helpful to Barcella and Wechsler.

After about ten weeks of analyzing these conversations, I was still only about a third of the way through the mass of data and I continued to find little that might be supportive to the bank. The lawyers were getting worried, of course. Finally, my advice was for the bank to take the best plea bargain it could get. Somewhat reluctantly, Barcella and Wechsler took my suggestion and negotiated a plea for BCCI that eventually caused the bank to  forfeit twelve million dollars. This seemed like a very stiff penalty at the time but months later, when the individual bankers went on trial and were convicted, the twelve million dollars seemed like a pretty good deal for the bank.

Postscript: For those who may wonder how a linguist can stand to work with a dirty client like BCCI, I  have this to say. Linguists working in the legal arena are not advocates. That's the job of attorneys. All linguists do is analyze the evidence data objectively and honestly. They should be able to come up with the same analysis if they were working for the prosecution. If the result turns out to be helpful to the defendants, so be it. If it shows how guilty they really are, defense lawyers are often grateful, because knowing this helps them plan their defense strategy -- if they can think of one.

Posted by Roger Shuy at April 7, 2007 02:29 PM