Leeson's lawyer challenges SFO in bid for British trial

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AS FORMER Barings derivatives trader Nick Leeson began his last desperate bid to avoid extradition from Germany to Singapore, his solicitor, Stephen Pollard, revealed details of failed negotiations with the Serious Fraud Office.

He said he was taking the unusual and risky step of exposing the regulator's reluctance to extradite and prosecute his client because he was running out of cards to play.

It was his last hope of putting pressure on the prosecuting authority to send somebody to Frankfurt to interview Mr Leeson, he said yesterday.

"I find their conclusion to our discussions so irrational," he said. "I can only think they are too nervous to take up our offer. I think they believe the easiest thing is not to get involved with Leeson in case they lose another high-profile case."

Mr Pollard's negotiations with the SFO began on 9 June with a meeting at which, he said, the SFO accepted that it had jurisdiction over certain alleged offences by his client. He told the SFO Mr Leeson was not seeking to trick it into extraditing him so he could later raise technical objections to a trial in Britain.

He said the SFO appeared quietly to welcome his approach and he felt encouraged that there appeared to be "no love lost" between it and Singapore's authorities; he cites their "lack of co-operation" with the SFO, culminating in their "astonishing refusal to provide the SFO with a copy of their formal extradition request".

However, in a letter six days later, the SFO refused to interview his client because of certain conditions which it felt had been imposed at the earlier meeting. It believed Mr Leeson wouldagree to be interviewed by SFO investigators only if there was an understanding that it would then seek his extradition. It also suggested that an undertaking had been sought from the SFO not to give Singapore investigators a tape or transcript of the interview which might be used against him in a trial.

"I have no idea how they concluded that there were any conditions attached," Mr Pollard said. "I certainly did not seek to place any formal precondition on an interview of Mr Leeson."

In a letter to the SFO a week after the initial contact, Mr Pollard tried to clarify his position. "I thought it best to go into some detail both as to why I had not sought any preconditions and why it was clearly to everyone's advantage that he be tried in London." The letter did suggest, however, that he thought it would not be difficult to persuade the SFO to keep the results of an interview with Mr Leeson secret from the Singaporeans.

On 22 June the SFO wrote to Mr Pollard saying that George Staple, its director, felt the case should be tried in Singapore. But it still asked Mr Leeson for a written statement in case it did decide to interview him; and it said it might support an application from the Singapore authorities for any evidence it gathered from interviewing him.

Mr Pollard said his first response was depression. "I felt it indicated that they were not playing straight with us." He said it was unusual for a prosecuting authority to ask for a written statement prior to an interview under caution, but he felt they had little choice but to co- operate. "Our problem was that we could not refuse anything the SFO requested," he said.

On 29 June Mr Pollard sent the SFO 75 pages of detailed information, including substantial material relating to Mr Leeson's involvement in the affairs which led to the collapse of Barings. Seven detailed allegations of offences by him were highlighted, together with relevant evidence.

But on 6 July Mr Pollard received a letter from the SFO saying the information provided by Mr Leeson, far from persuading Mr Staple to change his mind, had reinforced his view that the case was a matter for Singapore to deal with.