09/02/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT
LYNDA CARTER REMEMBERS EVERY DETAIL. On Jan. 29, 1984, at the swank Bel-Air Bay Club in Pacific Palisades, the TV Wonder Woman and Maybelline glamour girl tied the knot with Robert Altman, himself a superman Washington, D.C, lawyer—ambitious, connected and rich. Carter's friends Loni Anderson, Valerie Harper and Barbara Mandrell provided the glitter; the best man was Clark Clifford, former Secretary of Defense and a venerated Democratic Party elder. Among the guests was a Pakistani financier, inconspicuous but very powerful—Agha Hasan Abedi, the founder of the vast Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). "He gave me a car. That's right, a car!" says Carter with a shrill laugh. "He said I could have any one I wanted. Well, I picked a black Jag, but he would have given me a Mercedes, a Ferrari, anything."
The black Jaguar still sits in the driveway of Carter's $5 million estate outside Washington—a symbol of the decadent largesse of the BCCI, a tangled financial network that came crashing down in July. Following years of investigations, banking regulators around the world closed the $20 billion empire, charging that BCCI was a virtual criminal enterprise, playing banker to dictators, drug smugglers and terrorists.
A few weeks later the BCCI mess engulfed Altman and Carter. Federal officials say that BCCI owned a controlling interest in First American Bankshares, Washington's largest bank holding company—and Bob Altman's place of business. First American chairman Clifford, 84, and Altman, 44, the bank president, had repeatedly denied the secret relationship between BCCI and First American, which would be a violation of federal law. Although both men say they were unaware of the relationship, they were forced to resign and could now face indictment on bank fraud. BCCI could be "the biggest financial scandal in history," says Mike Cherkasky, chief of investigations at the Manhattan District Attorney's office, which is looking into links between BCCI and Clifford and Altman. "Either these men were not very sharp and they were deceived, or they were venal. What is it?"
For Carter, 40, the answer is clear. "This is so goddamned unfair," she says. "Robert and Clifford would have been the first to run to the feds if they suspected something was wrong. They were duped, everyone was duped."
Banking regulators questioned the two men before 1982, when Middle Eastern investors, who were connected to BCCI behind the scenes, bought First American and Clifford and Altman were put in charge. In 1986 and 1987 the two bought shares in First American with $18 million borrowed from BCCI, then sold them 18 months later, with Clifford netting $6.5 million and Altman $3.3 million in profits. Both men made millions more in legal fees for representing both BCCI and First American, a role investigators maintain was a conflict of interest. "It defies belief that Mr. Wonder Woman didn't know who the true masters of the bank were," says Samuel Sporn, a New York City attorney who has represented some First American shareholders. "And if he didn't know, then frankly he and Clifford were negligent."
Meantime, Washington is watching Altman and Carter's stunning reversal of fortune with morbid fascination. Altman was born and bred in the capital, where his parents were attorneys. As a newly minted George Washington University law grad, in 1971 he became protégé to Clifford, who had left government and built a lucrative law practice. Altman spent the next decade climbing Washington's towers of power and influence, eventually coming to rest with Clifford at the top of First American. That same year, he met Carter through a mutual friend.
Carter descended upon the capital in an ostentatious, larger-than-life Hollywood style that didn't always sit well with Washington's old guard. She glittered at White House dinners, chummed with Doro Bush LeBlond and Blaine Trump and played hostess to the hilt. She and Altman built a 20,000-square-foot mansion in Potomac, Md., complete with a Gone with the Wind—style staircase, 16 bathrooms and a backyard waterfall. "Robert thought when I moved to Washington that I'd be happy with a three-foot space in his walk-in closet," says Carter. "Silly man. I come from California and I need space."
After a four-year acting hiatus (during which she gave birth to two children, 3-year-old James and 10-month-old Jessica) Carter recently made two TV movies that will be broadcast this fall—Daddy, a treatment of the Danielle Steel steamer, and Posing, in which she plays a thirtysomething woman who decides to pose nude for Playboy. The commute to Hollywood meant that she was often away as her husband's career crisis broke, but when he begins testifying before Congress on Sept. 11, Carter will be there. "I'll be front row center," she says. "The truth will come out, and we will win. So I'll hold on for the ride."
JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington