Friday, February 21, 2014

Finally taking financial crime seriously.

Three former Barclays employees have been charged over the alleged manipulation of Libor benchmark interest rates.

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) named them as Peter Charles Johnson, Jonathan James Mathew and Stylianos Contouglas.

The men are accused of conspiracy to defraud between 2005 and 2007 and are due to appear at London's Westminster Magistrates' Court on a date still to be announced.

The SFO said its Libor investigation was continuing.

Just in case you hadn't noticed recently, the City and its banks have been continuing to live down to their shabby reputations and men like these represent but the visible tip of an iceberg-sized problem of alleged criminogenisis within the Square Mile.

The City of London has, over the past few years, become synonymous with every kind of skulduggery, sharp practice, flaky conduct and downright criminality it is possible to imagine.

The banking sector has developed into a mafia-like organised criminal enterprise, where every kind of wrongdoing has been permitted and encouraged in order to earn profit for the organisation.

Oh, there are many who will cavil at this description and who will accuse me of hyperbole, but what other description can you apply to a business sector which repeatedly has to set aside many millions of pounds in order to pay penalties and fines imposed for its criminal conduct, and which has had to repay billions of pounds in restitution for criminally-acquired revenues arising out of downright fraud, deceit and lies.

Despite all the attempts by Government to soft-soap the criminal activities committed by the banks by calling their wrong-doing 'mis-selling', a concept hitherto completely unknown to English criminal jurisprudence, the fact is that someone has been committing the crimes which have penalised so many innocent clients or investors. The banksters have been receiving their bonuses, that's for sure, and they couldn't have been paid these figures unless they had delivered the level of profits to justify them.

The British banking sector has been committing financial crimes for many years and it has relied upon the spineless regulatory model which oversees its activities, coupled with its friends and fellow-travellers in the Houses of Parliament who can be relied on, when a particularly egregious example of criminal conduct become public, to call for a cessation of any investigation, for fear of damaging the so-called 'good name of the City of London'.

What good name? Who do you know who has any good word to say for the vast majority of bankers? The sort of people who seek recourse to the dubious services the City bankers offer do so because in so many cases, they have money they don't want to have to explain in too great a degree of detail and they know it is a place where crooks and fellow scumbags can congregate, sure in the knowledge that they will be among friends and that no-one will ask any awkward questions.

The level of moral probity and decent honourable conduct has sunk to an ebb so low that one would have to be of extra-sharp sight to identify it (or what was left of it, to be more precise).

At a time when the vast majority of ordinary people in this country are struggling to make all the ends meet; where thousands of householders have been flooded out of their homes following the worst floods for centuries, the bankers, who have been supported by billions of British tax-payers' pounds to keep their flaky jobs intact, are still, even where they have made vast losses, managing to pay themselves levels of bonuses, of such obscene levels as to make any ordinary decent human being want to vomit.

In any other walk of life you couldn't make this scenario up and expect people to believe it, but when it comes to the City, the Square Mile, the denizens of Throgmorton Street, you have no choice but to believe the true foulness of its ability to demand more and more money, and to be allowed to continue their life as a protected species.

I am sick and tired of watching while the City of London and its banking sector manages to add yet another notch to its tally of wholesale wrongdoing and criminality, and I know that, increasingly, I am not alone. More and more, ordinary people are writing to me saying how enraged they are at the activities of the banks, and sharing tales of squalid horror with me, describing how they have been ripped off, defrauded, or had their mortgages foreclosed on, even though they were not in arrears or in any breach of their agreements.

So, I was delighted to learn that these charges were being brought against former Barclays (where else) employees over the alleged wrongdoing inside the LIBOR manipulation story.

But don't hold your breath.

Already there are rumours leaking out of the enquiry team itself and beginning to circulate in Whitehall and beyond, that certain highly-placed civil servants are already voicing 'concerns' that this investigation will be 'bad for the national interest'. 

This is the start of a Mandarin-inspired campaign of quiet advice being proffered to Ministers that this case would be far better off being quietly buried.

Such episodes happen more often than any of us would wish to see taking place in what we are told is a democracy.

As a detective, I once worked on a case, at a time when exorbitant levels of taxation were levied on unearned income, involving a large number of hugely wealthy British investors who had placed money with a Commodity Broker because it was known that he had a fool-proof method of spiriting the money out of the country and laundering it into Swiss Bank accounts.

All the individuals concerned had benefited from this clever form of wholesale tax evasion, but when the time came to prefer charges against them and their broker, we suddenly discovered that the Director of Public Prosecutions had determined that 'It was not in the public interest to continue with the investigation, and the whole case was wrapped up and quietly dropped.

At a wash-up meeting, I, and my colleagues were livid with anger and we accused a representative of the DPP's Office of being leant on and subjected to political interference.

The man looked at me in that patronising way that civil servants have perfected over the years when dealing with those not of their clique, and said;

"...I can assure you officer that we are never subjected to political interference.....We merely receive advice as to the public interest..."

Make of that what you will!

It is this kind of interference with the judicial process that has allowed the financial sector to continue to operate their criminal scams with impunity. It is what makes them believe that they are a protected species. It is what sets up a false set of parameters within which the crimes of the elites and the powerful get covered up and disguised, all in the name of some form of cynical 'pragmatism' designed to benefit UK plc. It is completely unjustified, it has no moral justification, and it arises out of a misguided sense of elitism that falsely teaches that the interests, (real or imagined) of the UK must be protected. I am of the belief that the greater interests of this country would be served by these wicked men being investigated, charged and convicted of their crimes.

For this reason, among so many others too numerous to mention, from that time I formed an almost unreasoning hatred of the senior British civil servant, which time has not managed to diminish!

Their overweening arrogance and their elevated sense of their own importance, to say nothing of the self-perpetuating, mistaken belief in their own superior intellectual capacity, places them in a special category of dangerous individual, and more public mischief and damage to the common weal has been caused by their influence, than anything else I can determine.

I once worked with a former senior civil servant from the Department of Trade and Industry at one of the City Regulatory bodies. He would often try to put me down in internal meetings by accusing me of adopting 'consumerist' attitudes towards victims of financial fraudsters, and when I stood up for their interests, he would say that when it came to regulatory decision-making, "...wiser minds than yours will prevail..."

That is why, when I heard from a friend that there were already the insouciant mutterings emanating from faceless Whitehall warriors that the investigation into the LIBOR case might possess the quality of needing to be buried very deeply away for fear of damaging some spurious interest which does not benefit you or me, I felt the urgent need to write this piece, in the hope that we can muster enough public support to ensure that this investigation is not quietly put to bed.

We simply cannot go on, allowing every Tom, Dick and Harriet, to play fast and loose with every norm and every standard of decent and honest conduct, without something being done about it.

We have to support the SFO in their investigations and insist that when the decision-making time comes, well, let the cards fall where they may. We have already infuriated the Americans very much in this case already, and that is not necessarily a clever move, regardless what the Mandarins of the Treasury might feel.

The SFO first announced that it would look into the inter-bank lending rate set in London and its alleged manipulation, in July 2012, and it launched an investigation in conjunction with the City watchdog, the Financial Conduct Authority, and the United States Department of Justice.

Barclays had already paid $454 (£290m) in July 2012 to settle allegations from US and UK regulators that it had manipulated Libor interest rates. Its previous fine was over the manipulation of Libor and Euribor interbank rates between 2005 and 2009. The impact of this scandal led to its chairman and chief executive resigning amid a barrage of criticism about standards and culture.

UBS, Royal Bank of Scotland and Rabobank have since paid bigger settlements for alleged Libor manipulation, and more banks are expected to face fines. Three other people, not connected to Barclays, have previously been charged by the SFO.

What this demonstrates is that this is a case that goes to the root of what is wrong with the culture of criminogenisis which is perpetuated within the Square Mile!

The Libor rate is used to set trillions of dollars of financial contracts, including many car loans and mortgages, as well as complex financial transactions around the world.

Last month, three former Rabobank employees were charged in the US over allegedly conspiring to manipulate the Yen Libor benchmark interest rate since 2006, and if convicted, the traders could face up to 30 years in prison.

Authorities in the US, Asia and the UK are trying to convict companies and individuals they believe manipulated the key benchmark Libor rate.

Officials in the U.S. Justice Department and the U.K. Serious Fraud Office clashed late last year in their mutual pursuit of Tom Hayes, a trader who is viewed by prosecutors in both countries as a ringleader of banks' attempts to rig the Libor rate.

British citizen Tom Hayes, a former UBS and Citigroup trader, has  been charged in connection with the SFO's investigation. But this case has led to a breakdown in relations between the UK and the US investigators.

The friction in this case possesses all the hallmarks of being capable of jeopardizing trans-Atlantic cooperation on future financial-fraud investigations. The Americans already have a long and bruising history of bad dealings with the UK authorities when it comes to protecting the financial interests of the City of London.

This latest row revolves around events that played out in rapid succession last December. The trouble began, it is alleged,  when the U.K. government unexpectedly blocked a Justice Department request to interview Mr. Hayes, who lives outside London.

Then, without notifying the U.S, British fraud prosecutors arrested Mr. Hayes and two others in connection with their own probe on Dec. 11th — infuriating American officials, according to sources familiar with the U.S. investigation. The U.S. prosecutors punched back the next day by filing sealed criminal fraud charges against Mr. Hayes.

It is highly unlikely that Mr. Hayes will ever see the inside of a U.S. courtroom, according to the same sources familiar with the matter. The reason: If Mr. Hayes strikes a deal with U.K. officials, it could block his extradition to the U.S. thanks to British double-jeopardy laws.

The US Justice Department started investigating potential rate manipulation about three years ago, in conjunction with the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the U.K. Financial Services Authority. The SFO didn't get involved until last July, shortly after Barclays PLC, agreed to pay the fines to settle charges that its employees tried to rig the benchmark interest rate. Since then, the SFO has been scrambling to catch up. The process was facilitated by the extensive evidence already collected by the U.S. and the FSA, which those agencies shared with the SFO, according to sources familiar with the case.

It is most likely that both Mr Hayes and the UK Government will want him to be charged and tried in the UK, if he is to be tried at all. He may prove to be ultimately more valuable as a witness, but who knows what he might say under aggressive cross-examination.

This unpleasantness over Mr. Hayes reflects a strained relationship between U.S. and British law-enforcement, according to law-enforcement officials and lawyers in both countries, a bad relationship which goes back many years. A fairly modern example was the BCCI investigation, where the then head of the SFO refused to allow US investigators to even remain in the building of the SFO in Elm Street and ordered them to return to their hotel, pending 'clarifications' of their role!

Whatever the outcome, we must all hope that this case does come to trial. During the BCCI investigation, when the British were being remarkably obstructive towards the US authorities investigations, a senior New York prosecutor, John Moscow made a comment at a Cambridge conference. Standing in a packed hall, he threw down a challenge to the British civil servants present by saying;

" ...Don't even think of trying to sweep this mess under the carpet - If you do, you won't have any space between the carpet and the ceiling..."

How right he was then, and his words still have the same resonance today


Paul Nedas said...

Spot-on and the very same culture that enabled the Manaipulation of LIBOR was pervasive throughout banking and is at the root of all other abuse of customers.

lifeafterdebt said...

Another great post. Am absolutely with you on them not being allowed to get away with it.

AbogadoNZ said...

Great post Rowan.
As an optimist I am mindful that the status quo will be perpetuated unless we, the community, put up some practical solution. Whilst I support the Russell Brand solution it too suffers from the 'now what' outcome. If people subscribe to the notion that massive change will most likely come from small initially incremental reforms. The first one I would like to propose is that people join their local Labour Party and start to insist on a what appears to be a simple policy change: That the next Parliament will abolish the Rememberancer and wind up the Corporation of London. It would look innocuous to many but as you know it would scare the bejazus out of the City.

Hugh Barnard said...

Please sign this: to protest against the RBS bonuses. At 100K signatures, it'll have to get discussed at least.