Flight of Conde ended by fraud charge

Mario Conde, the flamboyant Spanish banker sacked as supremo of one of the country's oldest and grandest banks in 1993 over a "black hole" of pounds 3bn, has finally been sent to jail, though on a relatively minor detail in a swindle of mind-boggling proportions.

Charged with fraud and embezzlement that unleashed the most spectacular banking crisis the country has ever known, he could eventually go down for 35 years. But, in the first judicial setback for the man who in the early 1990s was one of the most glamorous and powerful figures in Spain, a court has now sentenced him to six years' imprisonment for pocketing pounds 3m from the Spanish Credit Bank (Banesto).

Conde, a former lawyer who conducted his own defence, said he had paid the money into a trust in the Antilles to persuade the government to grant favourable tax concessions. But the three judges who condemned him said Conde's "financial engineering" was a smokescreen of "puerile trickery", and ordered him to pay the money back. The Banesto funds diverted into the shadowy Argentia Trust simply disappeared, presumably into Conde's pounds 35m personal fortune.

The judgment is a heavy blow to Conde, who had hoped for a small victory from which to fight back in the much bigger Banesto trial due this the summer. The verdict was greeted yesterday with almost incredulous relief that the man widely regarded as a brilliant and ruthless manipulator was finally to start paying for his misdeeds.

Conde's magnetic personality filled the Spanish stage during the country's brief specu- lative boom in the mid-1980s, and won the respect of everyone that mattered, including King Juan Carlos. From a modest family, he always denied responsibility for Banesto's stag- gering debt, and claimed that political opponents had made him the "black sheep" of Spanish banking.

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