Uncomfortable memories of Maxwell deals: Gene Fife talks to Peter Rodgers about his firm's unhappy recent association

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The Independent Online
NOTHING has rocked Goldman like its involvement with Robert Maxwell, as one of the conduits used to rob the pension funds and illegally support the Maxwell Communication Corporation share price.

In his first public comments on the relationship with Maxwell, Gene Fife said last week: 'We have put everything under the microscope to see what we could do to prevent anything like that happening again, but obviously we feel badly about the whole situation.'

The bank's reputation in the US was built on caution, and it always preferred being a profitable second rather than first in new markets.

This is true of London, too, and appears to account for much of its success. But Goldman's error in becoming involved with Maxwell has the uncharacteristic hallmarks of a company in too much of a hurry.

The core of its defence is that it was never Maxwell's banker, and with minor exceptions in New York had a purely trading relationship. The clues to some of Maxwell's machinations were buried in the settlement systems for share dealings, which are not set up - in any bank - to carry out routine checks on where money is coming from.

Furthermore, the relationship was as much a New York one as a London one, so that the matter cannot be explained away as a foreign subsidiary losing touch with the cautious methods of its parent.

Mr Fife said: 'We were not Maxwell's intimate or close advisers, telling him what companies to buy and sell or how to structure his stock. What we were doing was making markets in his stock, and in sizeable quantities, and conducting those activities at arm's length.'

The key figure in the share deals in MCC and MGN was Eric Sheinberg, an American trader of 31 years' experience who was regarded by colleagues at the time as a New York executive as much as a London one. The less controversial foreign exchange dealings with Maxwell were conducted in New York by John Lopatin.

Expensive lawsuits may be fought over the details. Goldman is also expected to be grilled by the Commons' Social Security Committee. But there are some general puzzles about the Goldman relationship with Maxwell.

For example, why did the bank not pick up the fact that large purchases of MCC shares by Liechtenstein trusts - supposedly independent of Maxwell - were being paid for by private Maxwell companies, which were siphoning off pension fund money?

Mr Fife said that was 'a legitimate inquiry that I wish I had a better answer for'.

He added: 'We watch with quadrupled emphasis any money going out, but we don't watch with the same vigour money coming in. If a customer has an obligation and the cheque matches, you don't necessarily question where the money came from.'

Since then, he said, Goldman had 'added depth and strength to our overall compliance and back office procedures'. But after an intensive audit, Mr Fife said he believed the systems were probably not at fault.

He said: 'The mechanics worked, but we missed something in the communications. We didn't pick up the signal that this guy was in deep trouble. I don't think the systems are the problem - it is making people think more, and not just mechanically react.'

Another question relates to the put options with which Maxwell promised to buy MCC shares held by Goldman, but with the transaction delayed to a later date. They were used by Maxwell secretly to support the MCC share price. Surely there is a hazy borderline between advice and arranging such complex deals?

Mr Fife said it was 'not an abnormal thing to use options. It was strictly a manifestation of the trading room interface with Mr Maxwell.'

He added: 'Eric Sheinberg, our senior trader, had found Maxwell interested in buying shares. Eric Sheinberg was in a mode of selling shares. For whatever reason it wasn't convenient for Maxwell to settle at that moment. He suggested something. Eric, being familiar with options, said 'Let's handle it this way'.

'Once he (Sheinberg) had constructed that option, he could virtually take that position and wipe it off the (Goldman) books, and say 'I have found a home for that stock.'

'We already owned the shares before we did the option. There was no requirement to go into the market to buy more.'

Looking at the overall picture, Mr Fife said: 'I guess what it boils down to is that if a person is intent on robbing or deceiving you, they will figure a way to do it.

'Unfortunately the thing that caused us to start looking was when he didn't pay his bills on time. It didn't occur to us that he wasn't going to honour his obligations, until the first default, just like any customer that doesn't pay for a transaction.'

Where is Mr Sheinberg now? He has international trading duties, looking after Asia, Latin America and Europe.

(Photograph omitted)