UK fraud buster plans big revamp after errors

LONDON, June 14 Thu Jun 14, 2012 9:47am EDT

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LONDON, June 14 (Reuters) - Britain's top fraud busting agency is to focus on big cases and improving intelligence and quality control, as its new boss shakes up a body lambasted in the courts for its handling of a case against a pair of high-profile property barons.

In his first speech since becoming head of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), David Green said on Thursday there had been a mix of unfair and fair criticism but that fundamental change was on the way.

"I am very proud to lead the SFO. I aim to recharge the SFO's corporate self-respect and to bring it to the top of its game as a major crime fighting agency," he told a PwC event on regulatory trends.

Judge John Thomas has slated the SFO for "sheer incompetence" in its investigation into the Tchenguiz brothers, two high-profile property investors, and called for better funding of the agency.

The UK prosecution inspectorate is already examining the agency, a step Green welcomed and dismissed as "piffle" talk it was linked to the handling of the Tchenguiz case or a review of the SFO as a standalone body.

"Is the SFO here to stay? Yes, it is here to stay. Does it have to prove itself? Yes it does. Remember what Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead," he later told Reuters.

In a blunt and spirited speech, Green mapped out sweeping changes to how the SFO will try to handle cases better.

"The SFO must focus on top drawer fraud. The SFO must resist dilution of its brand," Green said.

Scarce resources meant there was a need to focus on big cases that have "strategic value and maximum positive impact".

Routine mortgage and share selling fraud, or "bent solicitors" would be pursued elsewhere, leaving the SFO to focus on the big, difficult cases others cannot pursue.

"Ours is the hard slog," Green said.

The SFO will be revamped into four divisions with "layers of quality control" at each stage of a probe, from inception to charges, and between charges and trial.

Intelligence capability - seen as sorely lacking in the Tchenguiz case that is still ongoing - will also be beefed up.

The SFO was forced to admit to a litany of errors in the Tchenguiz case.

A new chief prosecutor will be appointed and there will be a recruitment drive among solicitors and barristers in the private sector to bring in more experience.

The SFO's proceeds of crime operations will become a division in its own right to increase confiscation of criminally obtained assets and compensation of victims.

Green is keen to use the "new imaginative tool" the SFO is set to get, known as Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPAs).

This threatens prosecution if a company refuses to make changes and can avoid a hefty fine that could close down a company and put many out of work.

Preet Bharara, an attorney from the Dept. of Justice in New York, said DPA was an important option when faced with a "binary choice" of potentially destroying a company or letting it go scot-free.

"You hold them on a short lease. It's a robust alternative to the binary choice you have," Bharara told the conference.

But the SFO will take care in using DPA, or other tools like immunity from prosecution and leniency for companies that blow the whistle themselves on fraud.

"Corporates cannot be seen to be allowed some special kid glove treatment. In any case where there is a reasonable prospect of conviction, and it's in the public interest to prosecute, the SFO will prosecute, whether individuals or corporates," Green said. (Reporting by Huw Jones; Editing by Mark Potter)

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