I'm not resigning, insists SFO director

Patrick Hosking talks to the man behind the failed pounds 25m prosecuti on
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The Independent Online
GEORGE STAPLE, the head of the Serious Fraud Office, is no stranger to gaffes. Last year he told a Sunday newspaper that nowadays it was "almost impossible" to commit fraud. Then in June he had to apologise to the Treasury Select Committee for misleading it over a fraud case.

This weekend he faces accusations of the biggest mistake of his career - spending pounds 25m and four years investigating and prosecuting a case where all the defendants were found not guilty. There have been calls for his head.

But Mr Staple, speaking yesterday to the Independent on Sunday, insisted the SFO did nothing wrong: "My own view is that the criminal justice system has worked as it is intended to work in this case."

He said the SFO had secured convictions in 70 per cent of trials. "Our record is a respectable one. I don't think we should be judged on the result of one case, however high-profile it is." And he resisted any suggestion he should resign. "I don't think there's anything in this case which should make me consider my position."

The SFO would now conduct a post-mortem on its handling of the case, he said. "But I'm not aware of anything that occurred in the trial requiring any radical change in our procedures."

Public confidence in the ability of the SFO to detect and prosecute white- collar criminals and to secure meaningful punishment for them is lower than ever. The popular view is that while the poor are locked up for relatively trivial offences such as failing to have a television licence, large-scale fraudsters are getting away with multi-million-pound thefts.

Many people found it hard to stomach the sight of Roger Levitt, who was originally charged with defrauding investors of pounds 34m, having the most serious charges dropped and ending up doing nothing more onerous than 180 hours of community service.

Other black marks include the SFO's failure to secure a single conviction in the Blue Arrow scandal, a case that cost taxpayers pounds 35m; Asil Nadir skipping bail; the collapse of two of the four Guinness trials; and the SFO's reluctance to take a leading role in investigating the Barings collapse.

Even those found guilty and sentenced usually go to the relative comfort of Ford Open Prison. Ernest Saunders, the convicted former chairman of Guinness, was released early after being diagnosed as suffering from incurable Alzheimer's Disease, from which he recovered.

The SFO, lampooned in Private Eye as the Serious Farce Office, nevertheless has had some successes. It convicted all four defendants in the first Guinness trial, it secured convictions in the Barlow Clowes affair, and it successfully prosecuted all four defendants in the BCCI scandal. Its conviction record was on a par with other Commonwealth countries, Mr Staple said.

Fraud cases are notoriously difficult to investigate and prosecute. One problem is the sheer complexity of many frauds. The City is a difficult place to understand and the figures and jargon can baffle all but the most seasoned investigator, let alone the ordinary juror.

The SFO has been accused of failing to boil down prosecution cases sufficiently to make them understandable to the lay person. Mr Staple rejects that charge in the case of the Maxwell trial: "We didn't have too many people in the dock. We didn't have too many charges."

There is a danger that in trying to simplify a case, details and witnesses are dropped that might have swung an undecided jury. According to Mr Staple, "There is an irreducible minimum beyond which you cannot go."

Some critics of the current system suggest that juries should be done away with in complex fraud trials and replaced by a panel of experts. But trial by jury is seen as a fundamental right in the criminal justice system. Moreover the Runciman Commission two years ago found scant evidence that juries failed to understand such cases.

A less contentious reform would be to oblige the defence counsel to outline its planned defence at the start of the trial. Many prosecution barristers have been wrongfooted by last-minute changes to the defence, by which time it is too late to bring fresh evidence. A bill going through the Lords could tilt the balance of power further towards the prosecution.

In the United States, where the conviction rate of fraudsters is higher, plea-bargaining is commonplace. This is where defendants agree to plead guilty to lesser charges in return for having more serious charges dropped. Plea-bargaining is rarer here, the odds are stacked more in favour of the defendant, and it can backfire. It was the SFO's attempt to plea- bargain in the case of Levitt that resulted in his light sentence.

Nevertheless, Mr Staple believes it should be considered more seriously. "It is something that ought to be looked at. I think you would find that more people would come forward and plead guilty."

Another suggested remedy is the reform or scrapping of the SFO itself. But it was only in March 1995 that the Government accepted the Davie Report into the organisation, which recommended that it should be strengthened as the centre of expertise for all big fraud cases, and given more staff.