'Black sheep' banker charged with Banesto fraud

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The disgraced former chief of Banesto, Mario Conde, was charged yesterday with fraud, unlawful appropriation and the use of false procedures, more than two years after the near-collapse of his bank prompted Spain's most spectacular financial crisis.

If found guilty at the conclusion of a trial that looks set to last well into next year, Mr Conde could face 35 years imprisonment. He has been under criminal investigation for months after Banesto, one of Spain's oldest and biggest banks, was brought to its knees in December 1993 with a multi-billion-pound deficit.

The bank was subsequently salvaged by Banco Santander in one of the biggest bank rescue operations ever mounted. What transformed the crisis into an international scandal was the decision by the blue chip US investment bank JP Morgan to help Banesto raise US$700m from the international markets before Banesto started to slide.

Seven other former Banesto directors were charged yesterday: Mr Conde's former deputy, Arturo Romani; Enrique Lasarte; Rafael Perez; Ramiro Nunez; Fernando Garro; Juan Belloso; and Eugenio Martinez.

The accused have just 24 hours to raise bail of a staggering 16bn pesetas (pounds 80m) as a guarantee to cover possible damages. Yesterday Mr Conde's grim-faced lawyer said it would be "very difficult" for his client to raise that kind of money.

Once the glittering star of Spain's 1980s boom, Mr Conde rose from humble origins to reach the top of the Spanish social elite by storming one of its most aristocratic bastions. He seized the chairmanship of Banesto in a boardroom coup in 1987 and always denied being responsible for the subsequent "black hole" - a 605bn peseta capital shortfall created by over-valuation of the bank's assets.

Mr Conde was dismissed as Banesto's chairman by the Bank of Spain, the central bank, at the end of 1993 for "gross negligence" following allegations that he had created a web of intermediary companies that bought and sold assets within the Banesto group.

Mr Conde has said that he did not own or run the front companies in which he is accused of being a main shareholder and which made huge profits at Banesto's expense. He was imprisoned at the end of 1994 and freed on a record bail of pounds 10m. In a book describing his stint at the bank, he wrote that he was subjected to a campaign of political dirty tricks and unjustifiably cast as the black sheep of Spanish banking.