Going for broke ruined Virani: As the former Control Securities chief faces a prison sentence after being convicted of deceiving BCCI's auditors, John Willcock examines the reasons behind the Ugandan exile's success and failure in the City

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The Independent Online
THE TALE of Nazmu Virani, the Ugandan Asian entrepreneur convicted at the Old Bailey on Monday of providing false information to the Bank of Credit and Commerce's auditors, is a gripping one.

Before the Serious Fraud Office raided Virani's company, Control Securities, two years ago over the BCCI scandal, he was one of the most successful Asian businessmen in Britain.

Virani's South London mansion was festooned with photos of himself meeting Prince Charles, in connection with his donations to the Prince's Trust. His company was advised by top City establishment brokers such as UBS, he had backing from banks like Barclays and Bank of Scotland. He was one of the 100 wealthiest men in Britain.

Mr Chandrkant Patel, editor of Asian Business, a UK trade paper, said yesterday: 'I have had a lot of calls from the Asian business community about Mr Virani this morning. We are all very shocked at what has happened.

'He was one of the best-known Asian businessmen in this country, and very widely respected. He formed a bridge between the Muslim business world and white English people.'

So what did Virani do that was wrong? And why did he do it? Having worked tirelessly for a decade to build his company into a leading player, why did he throw all that hard work away?

The case that the SFO sought to prove was that: 'Mr Virani and Mr Mohammed Haque, the head of BCCI's UK property division, together misled BCCI's auditors (Price Waterhouse) and the Bank of England about loans (and charges levied on those loans) which appeared to be made to Mr Virani's businesses, when in truth the proceeds of those loans were not used by Mr Virani's businesses.

'They were used by the bank for other purposes - either falsely to inflate the reported profits of the bank, or to plug the gaps caused by losses elsewhere.'

Details of the loans were not known to the auditors of Virani's own businesses, and they did not appear in the books of his companies. When BCCI collapsed in July 1991, Mr Haque fled to Pakistan and could not be extradited to the UK.

The key documents in the false accounting charges of which Virani was found guilty were Audit Confirmation Letters. These were requests from the bank to various borrowers selected by the auditors, confirming the balances owed on loan accounts. Having these requests signed gave the auditors an assurance that borrowers acknowledged the existence of the loans.

Similar comfort was given to the Bank of England when its officials read BCCI's financial statements. As one Price Waterhouse accountant put it, while the auditors were concerned about the honesty of some of those involved at BCCI, they thought it inconceivable that the customers were also involved.

The SFO said it was the involvement of apparently respectable customers such as Virani that enabled BCCI to deceive the Bank of England into renewing its licence.

The SFO concluded: 'This meant that the bank could continue taking deposits from the public even though it was hopelessly insolvent, with the appalling consequences which followed for so many depositors and employees.'

So much for the crime. But why did Virani do it? The answer lies partly in his quest for acceptance by what he perceived as the English business establishment, particularly the City.

When Virani was thrown out of Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972, he left behind a multimillion-pound property empire founded by his father and grandfather. In Africa he had been a highly respected scion of a business dynasty. In his new homeland he had to start from scratch.

Throughout Virani's hectic deal- making, aimed at making his new company, Control Securities, a key player in Britain's property world, his overriding motive was to be accepted by the British establishment.

Two things dominated his life: his business and his family. He is a leading figure in the Ismaili Muslim communty, with the Aga Khan as his spiritual mentor. He ran the business with his two brothers Zulfikar and Alnasir.

Virani worked 18-hour days, compared with 'only 15' in Uganda, usually returning home after midnight. A natural deal-maker, Virani once said: 'It's the deal that drives me. It's a sickness . . .'

The BCCI investigators found that Virani was not satisfied with doing a hundred property deals a year for himself, but also dealt in property for BCCI. He had a basic attitude to deal-making, buying 'rubbish' that larger institutions and property companies ignored.

'We have connections in the mosque and the temple with buyers of these types of property, which the big boys in the property world do not have,' he said in a newspaper interview in June 1990.

'These small players can't go to Gerald Ronson, the Pru or Norwich Union and buy a property for pounds 7m, they have to come to Mr Virani.'

Nearly two-thirds of the group's income came from property trading in the mid-1980s. This fell to a fifth by the end of the decade as the recession bit, although Virani tried to switch emphasis to rental income and leisure.

He often helped to pay for his property acquisitions with Control Securities shares and many sellers sold their shares on.

As part of his search for acceptance from the City he worked hard to court institutional investors. British Airways Pension Fund took 5.5 per cent. Control's share register listed 17,000 shareholders, including 16 pages of Patels.

According to Chandrkant Patel, Virani's only real crime was to fall victim of a cultural misunderstanding over the implications of the documents he signed. Mr Patel stressed that Virani had been cleared of the charges of conspiracy to defraud and theft.

Concerning the audit confirmations, Mr Patel said: 'To an Englishman born and brought up in London, it may seem surprising. But there is a cultural gap here. Businessmen (like Virani) use staff to check and prepare these documents.'

'It is not unbelievable that the guy did not look at the papers. It is intoxicating to sign 30 or 40 papers in one go, in a big pompous way. Of course he is responsible for what he signed. But I honestly don't think he comprehended that there were such big holes in the BCCI accounts.'

As far as the courts and the SFO are concerned, however, it has been proven beyond doubt that Virani played a decisive role in the BCCI scandal. Virani will be sentenced on 11 May, and the judge warned on Monday that a prison sentence 'appeared inevitable.'

(Photograph omitted)