The UK’s anti-fraud chief has defended her record after being rebuked by a judge and overseeing a fall in the number of investigations, saying she had “not the slightest feeling that I should be doing more rather than less” to prosecute white collar crime.
Lisa Osofsky, the director of the Serious Fraud Office, and the agency are facing a review of their handling of a contact after a judge this year censured her for exchanging texts with an unofficial representative of prime suspects in the SFO’s high-profile probe into oil and gas consultancy Unaoil.
The scandal comes as the SFO battles mounting criticism over its effectiveness at prosecuting corporate crime.
In a high-profile move, the agency on Tuesday charged three former executives of security company G4S with defrauding taxpayers, in a case dating back to 2013. But the number of active investigations is falling: it stood at 65 in March, down from 75 two years earlier.
No case started under Ms Osofsky’s tenure, who marks two years in office this month, has resulted in charges and there are no new bribery and corruption cases listed in the courts.
And, in an outcome that was embarrassing for the SFO - although Ms Osofsky had recused herself from the case - earlier this year three ex-Barclays executives were acquitted.
A tough-talking New Yorker, the former FBI lawyer told the Financial Times in a rare interview that she could “accept the criticism of the way the office handled a contact” in the Unaoil investigation. There was now a “protocol in place” dictating agency interactions with non-lawyers, she said, but would not be drawn further before the review, which is due next year.
Ms Osofsky was accused by Judge Martin Beddoe of allowing David Tinsley, the agent for suspects in the Unaoil probe, to become involved in the case by exchanging messages with him and falling for his flattery.
The SFO director also rejected criticism by lawyers of the reduction in investigations under her watch, pointing to the probe of suspected bribery at commodities trader Glencore that began last year.
“You tell me that Glencore isn’t one of the biggest commodities houses and power brokers in the world,” she challenged, speaking from her London office. “We are keen to take on big cases when there is the potential to have a viable prosecution, which you don’t know when you start an investigation.”
The agency last year also opened probes into suspected fraud at collapsed investment firm London Capital & Finance and Patisserie Valerie, the restaurant chain that overstated its assets by £94m. Critics say both matters lack the scale, complexity and cross-border criminality the SFO previously tackled, but Ms Osofsky described the LCF probe as a “huge case”.
“It kills me because you’re talking about thousands and thousands of people who’ve lost their life savings . . . This idea that it somehow doesn’t matter because it’s not big, I disagree.
“We have viable cases where defendants haven’t yet been charged but they will be,” she added. “I don’t have the slightest bit of feeling that I should be doing more rather than less.”
Not all of the SFO’s cases are public and the agency says several are soon to come to trial. But the 10 investigations that were closed last year outnumbered fresh probes two to one, according to SFO data.
Kyle Phillips, director of corporate and financial crime at law firm, Fieldfisher said: “It is staggering to see how few new investigations have been opened, in particular given the tough talking stance of the SFO.
“It is implausible to think that there have been fewer cases of serious crime reported to the SFO, and one wonders how many it has refused to turn into active investigations.”
Ms Osofsky deliberately cleared house when she took office and she said new cases were hard to mount.
“You get a kernel, it sounds great, but we have to invest a certain amount of time to figure out what’s there because we won’t necessarily get a treasure trove of documents from a foreign jurisdiction the next day.”
But she has spoken publicly about the need to speed up probes, having been criticised by a House of Lords committee for “excessive delays”.
Last year also marked one of the SFO’s biggest victories — a €3.6bn global agreement signed by Airbus to settle a “massive global bribery scheme” — the largest ever such plea deal after an operation involving France, Britain and the US. Such plea deals have become a mainstay of Ms Osofsky’s tenure.
“It’s still an exciting new tool and I’m a big believer,” she said. “You can’t put a corporate in jail but you can help a corporate clean house.”
Ms Osofsky said she had also been hampered by fraud laws that force prosecutors in England and Wales to identify a “directing mind” within a company who was party to the crime in order to secure a conviction against it.
The SFO recently secured convictions against three businessmen in the Unaoil probe. But it has struggled to convict individuals in high-profile cases, and no corporate plea deals have yet resulted in the convictions of company executives.
Stephen Parkinson, senior partner at law firm Kingsley Napley, said: “I have some sympathy for Lisa Osofsky. The standout moments of her tenure so far have been . . . acquittals and the decisions to abandon investigations . . . begun by [her predecessor] David Green.
But he sensed “a lack of energy” at the agency. “Their caseload is thin and they were slower to get back to work after lockdown than [other regulators].”
Ms Osofsky — a former US federal prosecutor who worked most recently at private risk and compliance company Exiger — has suggested increasing the use of US-style tactics such as “flipping” insiders to inform on others.
“I was hearing from people we hate supergrasses in this country. I said actually it could be more compelling if you had an insider who did something wrong explain how they did it,” she said. “But it’s not the only way to make a case.”
The SFO director has been criticised by lawyers who say the use of informants and co-operating witnesses could never be used as effectively in Britain as in the US, due to less punitive prison sentences for non-cooperators in the UK.
But she retorted: “I’ve been here more than 20 years. I understand we have different rules. I learnt that at Harvard Law School . . . I wear a wig here, I don’t wear a wig there.”
Indeed, MS Osofsky was resolute that being dual-qualified was an “unmitigated good” and said she was “proud” of her record. “The one lesson about criminal law is it will always take longer than anybody thinks.”
This article has been amended to clarify that Ms Osofsky had recused herself from the prosecution of the ex-Barclays executives and that the SFO secured the convictions of three businessmen in the Unaoil case.
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