SFO calls in Justice Department in Easier inquiry

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The Independent Online

The Serious Fraud Office is investigating the directors of the controversial online estate agents Easier, following allegations of fraud involving millions of pounds of shareholders' funds. The investigation has switched to the US after the SFO asked the Justice Department to help trace a mystery company, The Independent on Sunday has learned.

Officers from the City of London Economic Crime Unit are investigating a series of share deals after uncovering evidence supporting allegations that Easier paid £1m for shares in two companies based in the US and Canada. Detectives have requested access to the bank accounts of a company called Maxima Investment Fund.

Easier board minutes show the company gave £1m to stockbrokers SP Bell, owned by Simon Eagle, a non-executive director of Easier, to buy shares in two US companies. Mr Eagle and SP Bell are subject to a separate Financial Services Authority inquiry.

Easier was formed in 1999 and floated on AIM in February 2000 with a £12m placing. However, disappointing revenues led to a collapse in the share price and the business was put up for sale in November 2000. No buyer was found and the company ceased trading a year after it floated.

In June 2004, Easier announced a planned reverse takeover of Onslow Ditchling. According to SFO documents seen by the IoS, its nominated adviser, Beaumont Cornish, was told Easier was a cash shell with £4.5m but within three months it appeared that it had only £2m, with the rest allegedly invested in a series of "special situation" stocks.

Easier was delisted from AIM in October 2004 after Beaumont Cornish resigned. AIM regulators reported Easier to the SFO after it failed to provide proof of payment of the "special situation" stocks, suspecting the funds had been misappropriated.