Compared with these crooks, nasty Nick is mild

By Christopher Walker
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The Independent Online

I'm being stalked. Big Brother is watching me. It started in a restaurant, then it was a supermarket, now it's the theatre. The same face, again and again. At the first night of Another Country (all about public schoolboy skulduggery) there he was, Nasty Nick, the public school/City cheat the nation has come to hate. That man has done more to confirm people's suspicion of the wickedness of City folk than all the fraudsters who've ever appeared in the dock.

I'm being stalked. Big Brother is watching me. It started in a restaurant, then it was a supermarket, now it's the theatre. The same face, again and again. At the first night of Another Country (all about public schoolboy skulduggery) there he was, Nasty Nick, the public school/City cheat the nation has come to hate. That man has done more to confirm people's suspicion of the wickedness of City folk than all the fraudsters who've ever appeared in the dock.

And there are quite a few of those around at the moment. Investigations into insider dealing abound - there are no less than 30 major ones a year now. One team is now considering the rise in Thames Water shares just before it was bid for - strange that. Another is looking at unusual accounting practices at a corporate services specialist.

The courts are also being kept busy. Up in Leicester, a jury is hearing about the ostrich farm scheme which cost investors £20m. In Southwark, meanwhile, two former directors of Powerhouse Resources are being tried on charges of conspiracy to defraud and theft. And at Blackfriars Crown Court, a corporate financier is charged with "encouraging another person to deal" (whatever that might mean).

All these investigations and court cases rarely lead to convictions. The little ones get caught all right - last year some 1,500 individuals were disqualified from acting as company directors. But any big fish somehow swim through the net.

Consider the case of that Nineties stock market darling, Wace. Three members of one family are alleged to have engaged in share dealings using a string of no less than 29 aliases (including a two- month old baby and a long-dead childhood acquaintance) and various offshore bank accounts. The report, published last month after eight years of investigation by the DTI, is pretty damning stuff. Enough, you would have thought, to ensure that the three gentlemen involved were brought to account. Not a jot of it. According to reports, they are enjoying their garnered millions "somewhere overseas", and the DTI has said "at the moment there'll be no further action".

Clearly the law as structured is not enough to catch villains - it is time for change. Insider dealing seems particularly hard to pin down. The market, by its very nature, thrives on the free exchange of information. It will therefore be interesting to watch the development of last week's joint initiatives in New York and London. The Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Financial Services Authority, are both aiming to kill off selective disclosure of information. No more "guidance" on trading performance to big investors or leaks to friendly news outlets. (I wonder what newspapers' City pages are going to look like?)

Change is afoot in other areas. The Auld Criminal Court Review is pushing the need for reform, in particular recognising that the juries at fraud trials are often assessing complex technical evidence rather than the credibility of witnesses (as in, say, cases of murder or theft or rape). The DTI is doing its bit by setting up a body called FIRS, a taskforce assembled from insolvency and forensic accountancy specialists to look at especially complex cases.

But changes in legislation and surveillance are simply not enough to control the real villains. We have been overwhelmed with financial regulations and changes since the Maxwell case. But the fact was, there were plenty of existing rules which Robert Maxwell flouted, not least by holding pension trustee meetings with only one person (himself) present. As with the villain of Wall Street, Gordon Gekko, fraudsters are often larger-than-life. Believe me, I met Maxwell and the seven-foot giant with jet-black hair and a booming voice would have intimidated most "forensic accountants".

To control the bullies and villains we need some equally strong personalities. The City has plenty of those. This week saw another twist to the Tomkins furore when the US fund manager David Herro entered the fray. Much of the financial community has been shocked by the allegations concerning corporate jets, and a wife and housekeeper on the payroll, but it is an American who has taken up the cudgels. He has led the City before - in his famous unseating of the Saatchi brothers a few years ago.

Shame on us that we are slow to lead the attack. It is not enough for us simply to rely on legislation and rule-making. It must be beholden on all us financial professionals, who are the ultimate custodians of ordinary people's money, to be their watchful eye and strong arm. This is a time for Herros.

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