Big trouble with dirty money

Criminal cash isn't just exotic - it's in every high street. Profession als must take care not to help with its laundering, says Roger Trapp

The arrest last week of two partners in the City office of an international firm of solicitors focuses attention on the far-reaching influence of money- laundering and the legislation designed to combat it.

The two lawyers, along with the Russian wife of one of them, were taken to a west London police station after the money-laundering investigation team of the South-East Regional Crime Squad raided their homes and the Holborn offices of their firm, Faegre & Benson, as part of an inquiry into an alleged plot to launder pounds 32m of Russian mafia cash.

All three were released on bail and charges are not imminent, say police. But Nigel Morris-Cotterill, an associate with the City solicitors Millett Hall, says the episode should help to shatter the complacent attitude shown by lawyers to the risk of prosecution under money-laundering legislation.

Mr Morris-Cotterill says many lawyers appear to think that the legislation that came into effect in April 1994 does not affect them. Or, even if it does, they believe they will either not be caught for failure to comply with the requirement to report suspicious transactions or will not be a target for launderers.

"This is at best naive and at worst dangerous," he says. It is widely recognised that smaller professional practices - in law, accountancy and financial services - are increasingly likely to become a focus for money- launderers as the traditional methods of passing the proceeds of crime into the legitimate economy become more tricky. In particular, financial institutions have become more circumspect about cash transactions and report many that only a few months earlier would have gone through unchallenged.

Nevertheless, the growth of money-laundering is causing such widespread concern that Albert Pacey, director-general of the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), this week called for a special task force to tackle it. He urged changes in the law to allow the Inland Revenue and police to exchange information about suspects.

Part of the reason why professional firms seem reluctant to address the issue, says Mr Morris-Cotterill, is that everybody associates money-laundering with drug-dealing or international terrorism and often with "sunny places". In reality, a large proportion of the $150bn in dirty money circulating the globe comes from much less exotic sources - the proceeds of everyday crime. "Money-laundering in the UK is not subject to any de minimis rule; it happens daily in every high street," he says.

Another reason for the relaxed attitude on the part of some lawyers is that events designed to raise consciousness - such as the Financial Crime Conference scheduled for London's Cafe Royal on 6 and 7 June - are primarily aimed at banks and other financial institutions. Next month's conference will also see the publication of a book, The Regulation and Prevention of Economic Crime Internationally, that features contributions from Rowan Bosworth-Davies, a consultant at the City law firm Titmuss Sainer Dechert, and other speakers at the event.

One organisation not inclined towards complacency is Travelex, which has grown from modest beginnings in the Seventies to become the world's largest operator of bureaux de change at airports and seaports. While the law introduced a year ago requires transactions of more than pounds 10,000 to be treated as suspicious, the company opts for the much lower figure of pounds 3,000 and has adopted strict vetting and reporting procedures that can alert the NCIS, which was formed to lead Britain's response to the international problem. Moreover, the company refuses to deal with transactions involving more than pounds 50,000 unless it knows the person concerned.

Darren Clayton, company secretary of the group, acknowledges that this approach is not without its drawbacks. "We probably turn away hundreds of thousands of pounds of business worldwide, because people have to go through procedures and that puts them off," he says.

Although the company does not have a stereotypical money-launderer in mind, Mr Clayton says it is usually the combination of the type of transaction and the demeanour of the individual that raises suspicions. Then there are matters of common sense, such as looking askance at people making a transaction in US dollars in an airport terminal that does not serve the United States.

The key, suggests Mr Clayton, is to ensure that staff are aware of the sorts of things launderers are up to. To prevent the NCIS being inundated with reports of suspicious transactions, Mr Clayton clears his company's reports first. But even so, it makes 16 to 18 reports a year in Britain, accounting for about a third of reported transactions. Worldwide, the Travelex figure is about double that.

As Mr Clayton acknowledges, the impetus for Travelex is particularly acute since, by the very nature of its business, it does not know its customers. For a high-street bank, however, the issue is more one of ensuring it keeps accurate and detailed records of transactions.

Perhaps the greatest problem in stamping out money-laundering is the lack of any consistent approach worldwide. Mr Clayton says that comparatively recent entrants to the world economy, such as South Africa and the countries of the former Soviet Union, can be particularly difficult areas. Indeed, the Faegre & Benson raid stems from suspicions that Russian criminal gangs are using respectable London financial institutions, including a high-street bank, to clean up their cash.

The more traditional objects of frustration are the offshore banking centres. On certain Caribbean islands, less restrictive controls and rigid adherence to the concept of banking secrecy are blamed for impeding the apprehension of wrong-doers.

Such attitudes are responsible for the escalating row between Britain and the government of Gibraltar. With Spain apparently claiming that the Rock is being used as a money-laundering centre, the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, is exerting heavy pressure on local ministers to tighten up regulation of its financial services industry in line with European Union directives.

Chief minister Joe Bossano is resisting this, saying it would place an intolerable burden on the industry and pointing out that Gibraltar has already adopted an EU directive specifically aimed at the laundering of drugs cash. Moreover, he claims that he does not believe laundering is a serious problem in Gibraltar, for the very reason that the centre is so small that it would be easy to detect suspicious transactions. "The bigger the finance sector, the easier it is to escape detection," he said last week.

This point has not been lost on the US authorities, which consistently suggest that it is not only emerging nations and offshore centres that lag behind in this area. For instance, in The Business, a BBC2 programme to be screened tomorrow evening,John Moscow, assistant district attorney for New York, is quoted as saying: "London is a better place for bad guys to do business than New York."

The programme, presented by Jeffrey Robinson, author of The Laundrymen, investigates claims that differences in the regulations between the US and Britain are contributing to London becoming the money-laundering capital of the world.

It claims the different application of the regulations can lead to anomalies, such as a person not being able to open a building society account with pounds 600 of legitimate wages, while another can buy a car for pounds 20,000 in cash and have it customised for a further pounds 10,000, with proceeds from a robbery at the Bank of England's bank-note disposal department.

Not that the US is without its oddities. According to the programme, defence lawyers do not report large cash transactions on the grounds that this might prejudice their clients' cases. An attorney who was paid $103,000 in notes stuffed inside a biscuit tin reported the cash but refused to give the client's name on the grounds that if the client were identified, "we could end up being potential witnesses against our client".

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