Big Story 10

Former U.S. federal prosecutor to head Britain's fraud buster

LONDON (Reuters) - Former U.S. federal prosecutor Lisa Osofsky was named the head of Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) on Monday and said she wanted to embolden an agency whose future has been in doubt.

Senior lawyers gave the news a guarded welcome, some saying she would be a fresh face for Britain’s top white collar crime-fighting organization just over a year after it saw off threats to its independence.

Osofsky, a dual U.S.-British national, joins from Exiger, a financial crime compliance company, where she was a managing director and head of investigations for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Before that she prosecuted more than 100 cases for the U.S. government.

“Lisa Osofsky is not one of the usual establishment faces so will bring new insight and fresh thinking,” said Louise Hodges, Head of Criminal Litigation at Kingsley Napley.

“The question on everyone’s lips however is whether she will protect the organization from political interference,” Hodges added.

The ruling Conservative Party had pledged in May last year to scrap the agency and fold it into the broader National Crime Agency (NCA), as part of a shake-up after a series of setbacks in high-profile cases.

But that plan drew fierce criticism from lawyers and anti-corruption groups who said it would weaken the fight against white collar crime in Europe’s leading financial center. The scheme was dropped from the party’s two-year policy program one month later.

In April this year, the SFO said its core funding would rise by around 50 percent this year, helping it to take on bigger cases. But questions over its future lingered.

“Top of her agenda will be to determine exactly where the SFO fits once the National Economic Crime Centre is established,” said Christopher David, counsel in UK investigations and criminal litigation at WilmerHale law firm.

“As an English qualified lawyer who has held senior positions in U.S. law enforcement and the finance industry, she will clearly bring a fresh perspective, and potentially reforming zeal, to the role,” David said.

The SFO’s previous permanent director, David Green, ended a six-year stint in April, when the agency’s chief operating officer, Mark Thompson, became interim director until a new director started.

Britain’s Attorney General said Thompson will continue as interim director until Osofsky, long-rumored to be lined up for the top job, starts on Sept. 3, when he will return to his permanent role as COO.

“I look forward to building on the SFO’s successful record in the fight against economic crime and leading an emboldened SFO to even greater heights,” Osofsky said in a statement.

Osofsky has been appointed for a five-year term at the SFO that is renewable.

During Green’s tenure, the agency was praised by politicians for securing deferred prosecution agreements with Rolls-Royce and Tesco, and yielding combined fines of around 630million pounds.

Reporting by Huw Jones; Editing by Andrew Heavens