More loss of face for SFO: All defendants cleared in Seil fraud trial

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THE Serious Fraud Office has suffered an embarrassing setback after all four defendants in a key fraud case were found not guilty last week at the end of a costly three-month trial at Liverpool Crown Court.

The SFO's inability to secure a single conviction from the case, which followed the collapse of Seil Trade Finance, has surprised some people in the City, especially at Union, the top City discount broking house, which lost pounds 1.7m when Seil collapsed.

Andy Anderson, a director of several of the Union group's companies, and a prosecution witness in the case, said that he was 'very surprised' by the jury's verdict and by the fact that the trial had finished so quickly.

The SFO's humiliation was compounded when one witness, an accountant for the SFO, said after two days of cross-examination that the figures and graphs he was using to highlight his case 'should not in the interests of justice have too much reliance placed upon them'. The judge told the jury to expunge all his testimony from their minds and forget about it.

The outcome of the case will add to the current dissatisfaction with the SFO, even though it recently secured the conviction of Imran Iman, a former senior executive of BCCI, who was jailed last Wednesday for three years.

The SFO, headed by George Staple, has come under fire in the past for its handling of several high-profile trials. These include the case of Roger Levitt, the disgraced City financier, who was sentenced to community service; the Blue Arrow affair, in which four convictions were overturned by the Court of Appeal after the SFO fought a hugely expensive case; and Duralite, when the SFO's case collapsed after it made an administrative blunder.

The defendants in the Seil case, Nadim Siddiqui, Rehan Siddiqui, Maurice Craft and Leslie Couzens, were all charged and arrested in December 1992. Their arrests followed the SFO's investigation into the collapse of the Manchester-based company.

Seil collapsed in July 1991 owing around pounds 8m to a number of creditors, including City banks and two discount houses, Union Discount (now Union plc) and Alexanders Discount. Union has since recovered pounds 300,000 of its debts.

Of the three charges laid against the four defendants only two, both concerning fraudulent trading, were heard by the jury. The judge directed a not-guilty verdict on the third charge, concerning the connections between Seil and another company, Anglebrite, at the trial's half-way stage.

The jury found that the four men were not guilty of obtaining money and valuable securities from various banks and financial institutions by deception.

Sources within the SFO said that the prosecuting authority was very disappointed to lose what it believed to be a very good case. SFO officials, however, responded to criticism by pointing out that in the last six years one or more defendants have been convicted in 80 per cent of its trials. In the past year this figure has risen to 85 per cent, the SFO said.

Mr Couzens, a consultant to Seil and one of the defendants, said: 'I'm rather pleased that the nightmare is over. We have maintained our innocence all along.'

He said that Seil had collapsed because of the recession. 'We felt that in the circumstances we did our best, but in the end the banks just did not suppport us.'

The judge is reported to have said: 'Over the years both on the bench and at the Bar I don't think I have ever had quite such similar circumstances of error after error after error after omission after error.'

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