Let's not beat about the bush. We all know that a massive fraud took place. To most people, fraud is still a crime, albeit a middle-class and a complex one. Yet in the eyes of the law we can now hold but one man responsible, and he is lying six feet under.
All the hundreds of lawyers, bankers, accountants and investigators who have been poring over the late tycoon's great nemesis might find that a perfectly understandable and satisfactory state of affairs. But most of us are left quite gobsmacked by the spectacle.
If this were a pounds 400m bank job (pounds 400m is what Robert Maxwell stole from his pension funds), the mob would be at Westminster baying for blood. It is not an acceptable state of affairs that not a single person is going to serve time for this massive theft.
True, this is not the end of the matter. A great raft of regulatory action now swings into action against those caught up in the affair - directors, accountants, bankers, advisers and the like. But this is akin to the sort of disciplinary proceedings taken against the night watchman who is shown to have been asleep on the job as the gang sped away with the loot, or the security guard who had failed to lock the outer doors. It is to do with negligence and recklessness, not culpability.
We know a great crime took place, we know in detail who was involved and how, and yet nobody is guilty of it. Well there's a thing.
To be fair on the SFO, it was always going to be difficult to pin this extraordinary episode on anyone but the old man himself. So all powerful and domineering was he in life that it was easy for all who surrounded him to resort to the defence of the Nuremberg trials - "I was only obeying orders". This was particularly the case with his sons, Kevin and Ian. Others at least had the opportunity to turn their backs on Robert Maxwell, and refuse to deal with him; but Ian and Kevin were family.
The other excuse for the prosecuted individuals is the one that is often used in ordinary, blue-collar crime - that the system was primarily to blame.
At the time there were no adequate safeguards to stop abuse of this type. And while no doubt most of the lawyers, auditors, bankers and other City professionals who worked within the Maxwell umbrella would have blown the whistle had they recognised the extent of what was going on, there was a certain sloppiness of attitude, a tolerance of bad and abusive practice that encouraged those most intimately caught up in the affair to think it acceptable.
Perhaps most damning of all, the City knew Robert Maxwell to be rotten to the core because of his record of semi-fraudulent behaviour. Despite this, fee-hungry bankers and advisers conspired to rehabilitate him and lend their good name to his expansionist ambitions.
All this helps to explain and mitigate what happened; it does not excuse it. Fraud on this scale is not a matter which can be left to ordinary civil regulators, for that would support the contention that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. The system has failed us.Reuse content