For a man who is only days away from getting on a plane to the US for what could be a one-way trip, David Bermingham, one of the now-famous NatWest Three bankers, is remarkably composed. He's keeping busy, trying not to think about the moment when he will kiss his wife and three children goodbye, not knowing when he will see them again.
The trio are wanted in Houston, Texas, to face fraud charges related to the collapse of Enron, but have consistently argued that as British citizens accused of defrauding a British bank, NatWest, they should be tried here.
With his wife Emma, Mr Bermingham anxiously leafs through the morning papers at his home in Goring, near Reading. He has praised the press coverage of the case as "outstanding", claiming it had been so embarrassing that the US now regarded the issue as a "major international incident".
The NatWest Three have become a cause célèbre behind which human rights campaigners Liberty, lawyers, businessmen and opposition parties have united to launch a multi-pronged attack on the "unfair" extradition treaty with the US. The treaty has not been ratified by the Americans but is already being implemented in Britain. That means the Home Secretary no longer has the last word in extradition decisions - previously he was able to overturn them - and the US no longer has to provide solid "prima facie" evidence to get someone extradited from the UK, while Britain still has to show "probable cause."
A day after the shadow Attorney General Dominic Grieve threw his weight behind the campaign for the bankers to be tried in Britain, Mr Bermingham himself writes to Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General. Even though the bankers have exhausted the legal appeals process after a two-year court battle, he simply refuses to give up.
"I have been a voracious writer of letters over the course of the last two years to many politicians, most notably three different home secretaries, trying to ensure that they understand the principles which we believe are at stake here and why the law is fundamentally flawed. We've been fighting at times almost single-handedly a campaign to change what is a very dangerous law in our view for British citizens."
However, the crime the men are accused of is vastly complicated and has caused a great deal of confusion. Mr Bermingham admits that during the extradition hearings the "judges sat there scratching their heads and they eventually said, 'Let us be absolutely clear who is the victim in this - who has been defrauded here - is it NatWest or is it Enron?'" The counsel for the US government then got up and said the victim was NatWest.
The bankers are accused of plotting with former Enron executives to syphon off millions of dollars from an Enron vehicle in 2000. The US indictment alleges they persuaded NatWest to sell its stake in the Enron company for $1m, far less than it was worth, and pocketed the difference, $2.3m each.
Mr Bermingham meets his lawyer, Mark Spragg, at Jeffrey Green Russell's offices in London's West End, to discuss the latest developments. The legal team are busy trying to negotiate a bail package with the US government that would allow the bankers to return to Britain to prepare their case. Because they contested their extradition, they are deemed fugitives from justice in the US and could therefore be refused bail. If refused bail, the men face up to two years in a high security prison while awaiting trial in Houston.
On Wednesday, Tony Blair was finally drawn into the debate over the NatWest Three and, while refusing to block their extradition, promised his help to secure bail for them in Britain. But it was unclear yesterday whether his officials had actually intervened in the case. "I have no idea. The words Tony Blair and promise don't sit easily together, do they?" Mr Bermingham says bitterly. The Government's help is crucial as it could give guarantees that the men would not abscond from Britain and would return to the US for trial, which could make a bail bond unnecessary. (The trio have already had their passports taken away.) The bankers, who have already spent a fortune fighting against the extradition for more than two years, say they have mostly exhausted their financial resources. They even approached RBS, with which they personally bank, earlier this week to ask whether the Edinburgh bank would be prepared to put up money for a bail bond, but were swiftly rebuffed.
Mr Bermingham rings his US lawyers to find out the latest on the bail situation. Things could have been very different. The High Court's decision in February to allow the extradition to go ahead came as a complete shock. Mr Bermingham recalls a party hosted by the extradition section of the Metropolitan Police in London just before Christmas to which they invited all solicitors and barristers involved in extradition cases. "The whole extradition community was having a jolly prior to Christmas and during the course of that party about 30 different people came up and said to Mark Spragg, our solicitor, we hear you guys have trounced them. The police said it, even people from the Home Office admitted that we were going to win hands down." So, come February, the men were "completely stunned" by the High Court's decision.
The next severe blow came when the law lords refused to hear the men's case. It seems like an intervention from the Home Secretary, then Charles Clarke, was crucial. According to Mr Bermingham, Mr Clarke instructed his lawyers to put pressure on the law lords to throw out the case. "He said 'you need to realise that there are an awful lot of people in the queue behind these people and that they are holding everybody up and would you mind kicking it out please.' And they duly did."
As the first high-profile case, the NatWest Three will have severe implications for the other 19 people who are awaiting extradition to the US, including the former Morgan Crucible boss Ian Norris and the computer hacker Gary McKinnon. The House of Lords' refusal to hear their case "means they are not going to hear anybody's appeals" Mr Bermingham believes.
He is reluctant to speak about the possibility of a plea bargain, but it seems eminently possible that the trio will contemplate pleading guilty in the US in return for a much reduced jail sentence (possibly five years). The men have always maintained their innocence, but Mr Bermingham points out that 98 per cent of people opt for a plea bargain in the US.
The likely cost of a trial - estimated at $2m each - may not leave the three men much choice. "The only way we could possibly fund a trial in the US would be to sell our houses and the implication of that is to leave your wife and children with nothing," Mr Bermingham says.
Mr Bermingham, a former Army man, heads back home to spend a few precious hours with his three children - Jemima, eight, Freddie, seven, and Archie, four - before putting them to bed. He says his imminent extradition "has made me appreciate every single day and every single minute with my wife and children". While he does not regret having fought the court battle "from the perspective of principle, from the perspective of my family, yes". His son Freddie is now having nightmares.
He says he has become stronger over the past few years - and "a lot more political". The legal battle has brought the family closer. He says about his wife: "She's taken it unbelievably well. I'm not going to pretend it's not been difficult. It's been hugely difficult and there are moments of lots of tears, but in front of the children she is always solid as a rock and I know that when I'm gone [long pause] she will bring those children up fantastically well." A source of strength is their faith - the Berminghams are "strong Catholics" and are looking forward to Freddie's Holy Communion this weekend.
The case has also brought him closer to his co-defendants, Gary Mulgrew and Giles Darby, who are all about the same age, 44. The trio met at NatWest in the 1990s and left together in mid-2000 (when the fraud is alleged to have happened) to join Royal Bank of Canada. "We are joined at the hip but we fight like cats and dogs," Mr Bermingham jokes. They left RBC when the Enron allegations became known and Mr Bermingham went to work for a film finance firm, while Mr Mulgrew has been running a building materials business in Brighton and Mr Darby an engineering firm in Wiltshire.
At the end of the day, looking visibly exhausted, Mr Bermingham says the long-running court battle has subsumed his life. "I have devoted the last four years of my life to this case and trying to get the law changed."Reuse content