Robert A. Altman, a Washington lawyer who was acquitted of trying to defraud bank regulators in the BCCI scandal of the 1990s, then reinvented himself as the chief executive of ZeniMax Media, a video game company he built into a multibillion-dollar juggernaut, died Feb. 3 at a hospital in Baltimore. He was 73.
The cause was complications from a medical procedure, his son, James, said. Altman had negotiated a $7.5 billion deal in September for Microsoft to acquire ZeniMax, the Rockville, Md.-based parent company of video game giant Bethesda Softworks.
The acquisition was a validation of sorts for Altman, who started ZeniMax in 1999 after partnering with Christopher Weaver, a software developer who had founded Bethesda Softworks more than a decade earlier. Initially intended as a media and technology company, ZeniMax refocused on video games in the wake of the dot-com bubble, developing and publishing megahit franchises such as Doom, Quake, Fallout, Wolfenstein and the Elder Scrolls.
As chief executive, Altman acquired a host of game developers and used his political connections to stock the advisory board with figures such as former U.S. senator George J. Mitchell, CBS chief Les Moonves, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and President Donald Trump’s younger brother, Robert.
“If you love our games, it’s because of Robert’s love for what we did, and his trust in our dreams,” Emil Pagliarulo, design director for Bethesda Game Studios, said on Twitter.
Long before he entered the video game industry, Altman was a sought-after lawyer, a protege to Clark Clifford, the former defense secretary and adviser to Democratic presidents. Together, they counseled corporate clients and politicians such as Jim Wright, who resigned as speaker of the U.S. House during an ethics investigation, and Bert Lance, who left as President Jimmy Carter’s budget director following concerns about his personal finances.
“When Altman and Clifford work cases together, it is said in the legal community, they are a formidable tag team,” The Washington Post reported in 1991. “Clifford is the genial good cop who calls up and confers the compliment of humbly introducing himself to a new adversary; Altman is the one who calls later and threatens scorched earth if you don’t back down.”
Altman had grown up in Washington, where his father co-founded the law firm Krooth & Altman and his mother created “It’s Academic,” considered the world’s longest-running television quiz show. By the early 1990s, he was living in a 20,000-square-foot house in Potomac, Md., with his wife, former Miss World USA and “Wonder Woman” TV star Lynda Carter. Together, they mingled with athletes and politicians such as Chris Evert and John Dingell, who taught Altman how to shoot skeet.
Then came the fraud case, which upended Altman’s life beginning in 1991. He had been familiar with the phenomenon known as the “Washington scandal” ever since he was a boy and had even advised clients who were going through it themselves. But it was far different to be the one on trial.
“Until it is your picture on the front page of The Washington Post, until charges are being leveled at you and lots of false accusations are being made, it’s very hard to appreciate what it is like,” he later told interviewer Charlie Rose. “It is, of course, very unsettling. It is very frustrating. It’s maddening. It totally tears up your life.”
The case centered on the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, later dubbed the “Bank of Crooks and Criminals.” Prosecutors said it dealt with terrorists, drug cartels and dictators, and the company pleaded guilty to federal and state charges before closing in 1991, forfeiting $550 million in U.S. assets.
A decade earlier, a group of foreign investors fronting for BCCI had illegally taken control of an American bank, First American Bankshares. They were represented by Altman and Clifford, who succeeded in winning the Federal Reserve Board’s approval of the takeover after providing assurances that BCCI would not control the bank. In later years, they repeatedly said they were misled and had no idea BCCI was involved.
Altman, then in his early 30s, was named First American’s president. Clifford became chairman, and both men also acted as counsel to BCCI. Together, they built First American into the largest bank in Washington before New York state and federal prosecutors charged them with taking bribes and trying to defraud regulators about the acquisition.
The 1992 indictment, announced by New York District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, followed reports that Altman and Clifford had borrowed money from BCCI virtually risk free, then used the funds to invest in First American stock that earned the two men a $9.8 million profit. The lawyers said the stock deal was fair compensation for their work with the bank. Prosecutors characterized it as a bribe.
Altman ultimately went to trial on his own after a judge dropped the criminal charges against Clifford in 1993, citing health concerns. (He died five years later, at 91.) After four days of deliberation, Altman was acquitted of all state charges in New York. The federal charges were dropped, and in 1998 he and Clifford reached a $5 million settlement with the Federal Reserve Board.
Under the settlement, which involved charges that the two lawyers had lied when they said BCCI would have no role in running First American, Altman agreed not to work in banking again without the Fed’s approval. He would have continued to fight the allegations against him, he said, were it not for Clifford’s age and health.
Still, it was clear that he had had enough of the case and of the industry in general.
“This was a case that never should have been tried,” he told reporters after being acquitted in New York. “The government put on a five-month trial and we put on a five-minute defense. There was absolutely no merit to this. The worst part was waiting for a verdict.”
After two years of legal drama, he added, “Banking has very little appeal to me.”
Robert Alan Altman was born in Washington on Feb. 23, 1947. His father, Norman S. Altman, was a government lawyer during the New Deal; his mother, the former Sophie Robinson, graduated from Yale Law School and worked as a local television producer before launching “It’s Academic” in 1961.
Altman graduated from Woodrow Wilson High, received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1968 and earned his law degree from George Washington University in 1971. He joined the law firm of Clifford & Warnke that same year after clerking there as a student.
“He was bright and he was industrious,” Clifford later told The Post. “Boy, would he work. I liked that a lot in a young fella.” Clifford served as the godfather of Altman’s son, James Clifford Altman, and was best man when Altman married Carter in 1984.
The couple had met in Memphis, where she was a spokeswoman for Maybelline cosmetics. She later credited Altman with pushing her to seek treatment for alcoholism and did voice work for his company’s Elder Scrolls fantasy games.
In addition to his wife and son, an executive at ZeniMax, survivors include a daughter, Jessica Carter Altman, a singer and lawyer; and two sisters.
In a phone interview, James Altman said his father opened his own law practice after the fraud trial to pay off his legal debt. “But the truth of it is I think the whole ordeal with the trial had really soured him on the practice of law,” he said. “He started trying to look for something else.”
By then, he had met Weaver, whose wife was an OB/GYN and treated patients including Carter, according to a 2005 report in The Post. The two men are often described as ZeniMax’s co-founders – Altman’s family says he was the sole founder – and worked together until a falling out in the early 2000s.
Altman was known for maintaining a personal touch at ZeniMax, where he took steps to set the company apart even at video game trade shows. A few years ago, the company’s exhibit drew visitors in part by offering pours from $100 bottles of Glenmorangie. He was said to have personally insisted on the high-end whisky, according to Bloomberg News, with one staffer explaining that “he’d never offer a guest something he wouldn’t consume himself.”