Passport of former executive is confiscated before US extradition

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The Independent Online

The latest British businessman facing extradition to the US on fraud charges has had his passport confiscated and been told he cannot fly out voluntarily next Tuesday as planned but must wait several weeks to be handed over to US marshals instead.

Jeremy Crook, 53, a former vice-president of the San Diego-based software company Peregrine Systems, decided not to contest his extradition and to turn himself in to US authorities voluntarily in the hope of being allowed to return to Britain on bail. Those hopes were crushed at a hearing at Horseferry Road magistrates' court yesterday, when he was refused permission to fly out with his lawyer to Los Angeles next Tuesday. The Home Office refused to give him back his passport, arguing that he has to surrender to due process. That means the US will send over marshals and fly him over in the back of a commercial plane like the three former NatWest bankers who, unlike him, fought against their extradition.

The fraud allegations date back to 1998-2001, when Mr Crook was vice-president of Europe, the Middle East and Asia at Peregrine Systems. He and ten other American executives at the company, which went bust in 2002 leaving shareholders $4bn out of pocket, have been indicted on allegations of accounting fraud and an attempted cover-up by the US Department of Justice.

Mr Crook denies the charges, which carry a maximum sentence of 85 years in prison. He argues that the US financial watchdog, the Securities and Exchange Commission, has not indicted him on any charge, yet has indicted seven others. He also acts as a witness for the shareholders in their class action lawsuit against former Peregrine executives.

He has until 4 September to appeal against his extradition but said he would not. "I want to go to America to fight the charges," he said, ruling out a plea bargain. "In the UK, pleading guilty to fraud is enough to stop me operating as a director of a company for life. In Britain a plea bargain is an alien concept. In the US it's acceptable."

Mr Crook strongly criticised the fast-track extradition laws, designed to tackle terrorism, which means the US does not have to show any evidence when making an extradition request. "I'm not against extradition per se but against extradition without a prima facie case," he said. "You can lay that charge [conspiracy to defraud] on any British businessman if there is any wrongdoing within the organisation."

Mr Crook, who is divorced with two sons and lives in Upminster, Essex, with his new partner, said he had sold his house for £375,000 to raise cash for bail and to fight the case, which could cost up to $1m.

The Peregrine case will come to trial in San Diego in April and will last three months. Six executives have already pleaded guilty in return for reduced sentences. An internal investigation into Peregrine's accounts began in May 2002 after the group issued a profits warning. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and was later sold to Hewlett-Packard.