Portugal no haven for offshore shark

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The Independent Online
LIVERPOOL-BORN David Lowry, 54, a lawyer and specialist in what one regulatory spokesman called "the less establishment end of the financial market", looked remarkably chipper, considering he had spent 23 months sharing a Portuguese prison cell with 13 others.

But that was before the judge at Lisbon's criminal court sent him down on Friday for nine years for fraud and conspiracy over the operations of his share telesales company, Paramount Portugal, and banished him from the country for another 10 years. At this, Lowry crumpled sideways, while his supporters in the curlicued, tiled courtroom murmured and huddled together in shock at the unexpectedly harsh verdict.

Lowry's crime was to have set up an unregistered operation in Lisbon from which scores of employees cold-called investors around the world and persuaded them to buy shares in small companies in Florida and New Zealand. Following investors' complaints, police closed the company in April 1997 and the judge found him guilty of fraud, criminal association, forgery and illegal use of a database containing potential investors' names and numbers.

Lowry insisted throughout his five-month trial that he was only following standard US business procedure. "I took Portuguese legal advice that said if I didn't deal in Portuguese stock or seek clients in Portugal, I needn't register the company," he said when I visited him in Lisbon's Caxias jail, where the former dictator Antonio Salazar used to lock up his political opponents.

Lowry has slightly faded blond good looks and a gently persuasive manner. "The Portuguese authorities are just inexperienced in telephone share- dealing," he said before the verdict. "They concocted this case against me on the basis of pure suspicion." He did not deny the activities of which he was accused. "I just did not believe I had done anything wrong. Where's the crime?"

The Portuguese judge, however, decided Lowry had mounted a calculated swindle. He had set up a "boiler-room" dealing operation to persuade investors to buy shares that were worthless, defrauding them of millions of pounds. The raid on Paramount was launched after disappointed Irish and Danish investors complained to Portugal's financial regulators that they had lost vast sums.

The twin-track career of David Lowry, as lawyer and businessman, lies in ruins: he can now neither run a business nor practise law. It is a humiliating blow for a man of charm and intelligence who has mobilised to his cause some of Britain's most eminent lawyers, several of whom testified at length in his favour.

"I'm a professional trustee. I look after other people's money. I cannot afford to be tainted with even the hint of fraud," he said during the trial. But the judge condemned him as "one of those people who play with millions".

David Lowry graduated in law in 1969 from Queen's University, Belfast. In a lengthy report submitted by the defence, his former jurisprudence professor, William Twining, rated his former student "a person of great potential". Lowry moved to the US with Prof Twining's blessing and prospered as an academic lawyer specialising in civil liberties, environmental protection and labour law, before moving into the telecommunications business. From the start "Lowry adopted the assertive and entrepreneurial style of American lawyers and businessmen", Prof Twining said.

Mr Lowry told me: "I used to teach students the law on white-collar crime." He became expert in international finance and tax havens, and set up worldwide consultancies that, in his words, "designed and managed offshore trusts and private corporations taking advantage of tax and fiscal opportunities, while ensuring anonymity for the client".

Domiciled in Switzerland, Lowry's British business connections amounted to a three-month stint in 1996 as director of a media company called Cable Road UK, and manager of Videotron UK, a company whose process of dissolution began last month.

The buccaneering world of transnational share-dealings boomed in the US in the 1980s, punting unquoted shares in high-risk startup companies by telephone or, latterly, on the internet. Operators used high-tech telecoms equipment to dodge national jurisdictions by being registered nowhere. Calls to numbers in one tax haven would be re-routed by satellite to another, so that neither investors nor the authorities knew exactly where to appeal when problems arose.

So renowned did Lowry's expertise become that the US authorities even sought his advice in tracking down tax fraudsters, according to Craig Heesch, a retired Los Angeles policeman and former undercover FBI operative, and Don Rogers, a former FBI special agent. Each testified that Mr Lowry had helped US investigations into racketeering on several occasions, the latest just months ago from his prison cell.

But British and US efforts to stamp out this form of white-collar crime have now spread to Portugal, and David Lowry is by far their biggest catch.