Solicitors linked to quarter of SFO cases

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The Independent Online

Solicitors are suspects in a quarter of cases under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office, it was disclosed yesterday.

Rosalind Wright, head of the SFO, chose the opening full day of the annual international conference on economic crime, held in Cambridge, to launch a withering attack on lawyers, accusing them of assisting and encouraging organised crime.

"Every solicitor who involves himself in money-laundering brings shame on his profession," said Mrs Wright. Such people, she said, should "become pariahs" within their communities. It was important to remember that "the money launderer who helps a criminal enjoy the proceeds of his crime is just as much a criminal as the criminal," she added.

In a marked shift at the conference, attended by international law enforcement officers, investigators and regulators, Mrs Wright was joined by other speakers who blamed the legal profession for criminals such as drugs barons and corrupt heads of state for hiding their cash. Previously, the Cambridge conference has targeted major banks and tax haven jurisdictions for not doing enough to combat theft and fraud. This year, however, lawyers are under fire.

John Moscow, a New York assistant district attorneyand the prosecutor credited with exposing fraud at the top of the former Bank of Credit and Commerce International, echoed Mrs Wright's words. The main obstacle to penetrating large-scale economic crime, said Mr Moscow, was no longer bank secrecy but corporate secrecy – with lawyers playing an instrumental role.

After relentless pressure down the years, banks were becoming better at handing over records and were less obstructive than in the past. But, said Mr Moscow, a new profession has grown, of lawyers willing to help criminals, or at the very least, reluctant to make too many inquiries about the true nature of their business. When challenged, these lawyers would cite professional privilege and refuse to cooperate with the authorities.

Several solicitors at well- known City firms are at the centre of money-laundering investigations in the UK. And the profession is bracing itself for a series of embarrassing, high-profile court actions as authorities are pressing to clamp down on corrupt lawyers. Mr Moscow's New York office is prosecuting two London solicitors for aiding and abetting fraudsters in the US. He said he had known cases where lawyers claimed not to know their clients or have any idea of what they were up to. Such behaviour, said Mr Moscow, was clearly wrong. Professional bodies had to impress as much on their members and exclude them.