Barings staff face fresh inquiry

Singapore fall-out: Fraud investigators respond swiftly to allegations of a high-level bank cover-up
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The Independent Online
Singapore fraud investigators moved swiftly yesterday to interview James Bax and Simon Jones as part of a wide-ranging response into the collapse of Barings. Their action could involve criminal prosecution of local Barings executives and applications for extradition of some of the London staff. No charges have been laid against anyone but Nick Leeson, the trader accused of bringing down the bank.

The interviews came barely 24 hours after a damning 183-page report from the Singapore authorities, which said there had been a deliberate cover- up by some Barings executives of an accounting warning sign that could have saved the bank. Mr Bax, the boss of Nick Leeson and Peter Norris, Barings' former chief executive, were also accused of lying to investigators.

Sources close to the investigation said yesterday that a farewell party planned for Mr Bax on Tuesday was abruptly cancelled and that his weekend departure from Singpore was thrown into doubt.

Travel restrictions had been placed on both Mr Bax and on Mr Jones, chief operating officer for Barings South Asia, who are both still based in Singapore. Mr Bax was due to travel only after posting an pounds 11,360 bond.

Lawrence Ang, the director of the Commercial Affairs Department - responsible for fraud investigation - yesterday refused to name those who may face criminal proceedings. The department said its investigations had produced additional charges against Nick Leeson, but these would not be added to the 11 on which he will stand trial in Singapore should his extradition from Germany be successful.

The existing charges fall into three categories of forgery, "certain price adjustments" and deceiving the Singapore International Monetary Exchange. These offences carry a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment.

Asked whether the Singaporean authorities would accept an offer of co- operation from Mr Leeson, Mr Ang replied: "Yes, why not?" He was hesitant in saying whether such an offer had already been made but ultimately said that it had not.

Stephen Pollard, Mr Leeson's lawyer, said his client was likely to get a fairer trial in Singapore in the light of the new report. "The inspectors have focused on the extent to which the bank could not have collapsed without the acts and omissions of the London management. To that extent they must share the responsibility with Nick Leeson for the collapse of the bank."

Mr Ang would say nothing specific about his department's interest in Mr Norris - but he made clear that if people outside Singapore were responsible, there would be no hesitation in investigating them. "If offences were committed here, then it matters not where these people are. Obviously we can pursue [them] in accordance with extradition law."

Asked whether Mr Norris could be prosecuted if it were proved that he was involved in a conspiracy to conceal unlawful trading, as suggested by the inspectors, Mr Ang replied: "If it can be established that acts of conspiracy took place in Singapore, [the department] may be able to use that as a basis to launch investigations."

Mr Norris's lawyer in London said yesterday his client would fight any attempt to have him extradited to Singapore. "I imagine that ... he would not be enthusiastic about returning voluntarily to face a court in Singapore," said Anthony Isaacs of Stephenson Harwood.

The Singapore authorities' report suggests that Barings Futures (Singapore), the company at the centre of the collapse, was trading unlawfully. If this were proved all the company's directors would be liable for criminal prosecution under the Singaporean Companies Act.

Mr Norris, Mr Bax, Mr Jones and the Singaporean directors are therefore at risk. Nothing has been said so far about possible action against Singaporean nationals.

Mr Ang added that attempts to interview "seven to ten people" in the UK came to nothing because of the "virtually impossible"demands made by potential witnesses.

He said these were: that interviews had to be informal, that lawyers had to be present, that detailed questions had to be provided in advance, that questions could not go beyond the scope of those notified, that any document referred to was to be supplied in advance, that the Commercial Affairs Department would not seek to summon or subpoena the witnesses and that the interviews were to be held under the privilege provisions of English law, in other words that their contents could not be used in any subsequent legal action.