Spanish banking supremo on trial

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The former banking supremo Mario Conde, once the glamorous darling of new Spain, goes on trial today charged with fraud and embezzlement on a mind-boggling scale. He could be sent down for more than 35 years.

Sacked in 1993 as boss of one of country's oldest and grandest banks, Mr Conde has consistently denied responsibility for Banesto's "black hole" of pounds 3bn. Now widely regarded as a brilliant but unscrupulous manipulator, Mr Conde claims that his political opponents cast him as the "black sheep" of Spanish banking.

The scandal at the end of Spain's boom years unleashed a spectacular financial crisis, and the huge operation which had to be mounted in order to rescue Banesto convulsed Spain's banking system. Mr Conde, 49, and nine senior associates, are accused of enriching themselves by defrauding Banesto's shareholders of about pounds 40m throughout his six years as chairman.

During that time, Mr Conde, the son of small-town customs inspector, accumulated a personal fortune put at some pounds 35m, some of it invested in a number of houses and vast country estates, the rest, the prosecution says, squirrelled away in a web of Swiss money-laundering operations.

Mr Conde emerged this week from years of silence to launch a charm offensive. "The intervention of Banesto [by the Bank of Spain] was strictly political," he told every newspaper and television station in Spain. "The Socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez used all the powers of the state to make me the baddie."

The judges will investigate seven irregular operations which occurred while Mr Conde was at Banesto. In these, he allegedly took money from the till and acquired a number of trading outfits which he subjected to what the prosecution calls "financial engineering and creative accounting ... that constituted a smokescreen of trickery."

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