Argentina's President Faces Twin Scandals BCCI Connections, Alleged Drug-Money Laundering by Close Aides Threaten Fresh Political Trouble for Menem

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THE global banking scandal involving Bank of Credit & Commerce International has landed atop an Argentine drug-money-laundering scandal alleged to involve figures close to President Carlos Saul Menem.

Almost simultaneously with the BCCI news in early July came a federal court decision to press drug-money laundering charges against Amira Yoma, the president's former sister-in-law and former appointments secretary. While there is no known link between BCCI and charges against Ms. Yoma, many Argentines have begun to wonder if "Yomagate" does not extend further.

Speculation has been rife, in part, because Yoma and the president are both of Syrian ancestry, and both had contacts with alleged BCCI front man Ghaith Pharaon, a Saudi Arabian financier. Mr. Pharaon has in recent years become a highly visible investor in Argentina, with investment projects receiving high-level support.

"People never related BCCI with Yomagate until the judge (investigating Yomagate) went to BCCI to get some information," says a representative of a US bank in Buenos Aires. "Now people in the (financial) community start thinking there is some connection."

Argentine banking authorities closed down the local Banco de Credito y Comercio, 99 percent owned by BCCI Holdings, in late July, though a decision had earlier been made to close the bank by the end of the year. When officials visited BCCI offices, they are reported to have found written instructions for the bankers to destroy documents on secret accounts and the institution's transactions.

Pharaon met with President Menem some time ago to discuss a Hyatt Regency hotel he is building in downtown Buenos Aires. He also used the consulting services of Javier Gonzalez Fraga, who later became Argentina's Central Bank president. Both have denied anything more than a superficial connection with Pharaon. Desperately seeking citizenship

Pharaon was apparently interested in Argentine investments partly because he hoped to obtain Argentine citizenship. Laws granting Argentine citizens a right to trial at home before being extradited for trial abroad would thwart US attempts to extradite Pharaon, says Rogelio Garcia Lupo, the Buenos Aires correspondent for Tiempo de Madrid, a Spanish magazine.

Mr. Lupo says in a phone interview that US investigators told him this was the reason Pharaon sued him after a book he wrote led the Argentine government to decline Pharaon citizenship. The book, called "Stroessner's Paraguay," contains a chapter about BCCI in Paraguay. …