The NatWest Three, the British bankers whose fight against extradition to the United States became a cause célèbre, have been sentenced to three years in prison for their bit-part in the fraud that sank the US energy giant Enron.
Almost eight years after they illegally pocketed $7.3m (£4m) in a secret deal with Enron, and after almost as many years protesting their innocence, David Bermingham, Gary Mulgrew and Giles Darby yesterday made public apologies in a courtroom in Houston, Texas, as a judge approved a plea bargain struck two months ago.
They admitted their guilt in November last year as part of a deal that will see them serve most of their 37-month sentence in a UK jail. Prosecutors agreed to drop all but one of the original seven fraud charges.
"I'd like to apologise to the people who've been hurt by my decisions, my family, my friends and my ex-colleagues," Mulgrew told the judge, Ewing Werlein.
Darby added: "I clearly realise now that our involvement was wrong and we failed to take the right course of action. I'm fully prepared to accept the consequences of my actions."
The men admitted defrauding their then employer, NatWest, in 2001 when they persuaded it to sell its stake in an Enron subsidiary for just $1m to a company in which they had a secret financial interest. That company then sold it back to Enron days later for $20m. The trio pocketed $7.3m of the difference, and Andrew Fastow, Enron's disgraced chief financial officer, and another Enron employee shared in the remainder.
Mr Fastow is serving six years in jail and had been slated as a prosecution witness against the NatWest Three. The trial had been due to start last month and a guilty verdict on the original charges could have put the three men behind bars in the US federal prison system for up to nine years.
The trio will repay the proceeds of their fraud to NatWest, now part of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
Dan Cogdell, lawyer for Bermingham, said the priority throughout had been to return the men to the UK as soon as possible, and that had been a factor in agreeing to negotiate a plea bargain last year.
It is likely that they will be eligible for transfer to the UK within nine months. In the British system, unlike in the US, they will be able to serve time in an open prison and will be eligible for parole, perhaps after serving just 18 months.
They had been confined to the Houston area, electronically tagged and forbidden to talk to each other since losing their battle against extradition in 2006.
That legal fight – and a skilled publicity campaign that used the services of a professional PR firm and enlisted support from a national newspaper – threatened to cause ructions between the UK and the US.
They were extradited under a controversial treaty which meant the US was not required to provide evidence against them, a treaty which at the time only the UK had ratified. The brouhaha kick-started the ratification process in the US.
The Daily Telegraph threw its weight behind a campaign to keep the men in Britain, turning three millionaires into unlikely poster boys for international fairness. Even Bermingham observed at the time that "we are fundamentally unsympathetic people ... ex-bankers who made a lot of money out of doing a deal that turns out to look really smelly".
The Confederation of British Industry, the UK's premier business lobby group, continues to be concerned that a treaty designed to allow quick extradition of terror suspects is being used by the US to pursue white collar crime.
Luke Tolaini, head of the CBI's working party on extradition, said: "The case illustrates the willingness of US prosecutors to seek the extradition of UK nationals for white-collar offences. This, matched with low barriers to extradition to the US and the UK's unequal extradition relationship with the US, means that the issue remains a concern to the business community."
The collapse of Enron in 2001 became one of the most potent symbols of corporate corruption in the US. The company was once the seventh-largest in the country, but it was a financial house of cards built on dodgy side deals that hid billions of dollars in liabilities. Its bankruptcy wiped out hundreds of jobs and $2bn of employee pensions.
How a swindle led to jail
April 2000: David Bermingham, Gary Mulgrew and Giles Darby, three NatWest bankers, pocket $7.3m from a secret deal involving Enron and the energy firm's chief financial officer, Andrew Fastow.
December 2001: Enron collapses amid allegation of fraud by Fastow and other officers.
June 2002: US prosecutors issue arrest warrants for the NatWest Three over suspected fraud.
January 2004: Fastow pleads guilty to fraud and promises to help prosecutors build cases against former colleagues and business partners.
October 2004: A judge rules that the NatWest Three can be extradited to the US to face charges.
May 2005: After a judicial review, the then home secretary, Charles Clarke, says the extradition should go ahead.
February 2006: The High Court upholds the extradition decision on appeal.
June 2006: More than 400 businessmen march through Westminster urging the UK to amend what they say is a lopsided extradition treaty with the US, and which was meant to be used against terror suspects rather than white-collar criminals.
July 2006: The Attorney General rejects calls for the case to be tried in the UK and the NatWest Three are extradited to the US, where they are indicted on seven fraud counts, enter not guilty pleas and are bailed to remain in the Houston area.
November 2007: Darby, Bermingham and Mulgrew plead guilty to a single charge of fraud after agreeing a deal with prosecutors that could mean they serve some of the sentence in UK.
January 2008: A Houston judge rubberstamps their plea deal and the men are each sentenced to 37 months in prison.