Cat and mouse

As I tell anybody who asks about my career, the thing about corporate fraud and corruption is that it’s fiendishly difficult to prove.  With drugs you can get tip offs and wait patiently for deliveries to arrive, then maybe establish a link to the baron who arranged the shipment.  But in the business world everything is cloaked in secrecy but also submerged in plain sight behind the scope and volume of global communications networks.

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There is rarely a smoking gun to be seen, only hints and nuances.  None of your traditional policing either – we need document experts to plough through thousands and millions of pages, computer experts to examine the online trails and illegal sites to front nefarious activity, accountants to peruse millions of payments and offshore subsidiaries to identify possible laundering opportunities or backhanders that go through half a dozen sources from a company bidding for work to the potentate who doles out the contracts, and that even before you have to prove it all in court.

Most of the time we are at least a dozen steps behind the clever villains who perpetrate some of the most massive frauds, and because of the trip wires they set they know full well we are watching them watching us as we log the trading patterns and gather witness statements from people whose sole purpose is to tell us absolutely nothing.

The complexities are legion and often it is sheer luck that allows the needles in the haystacks to be exposed and a prosecution mounted.  Even then, we have to face adversaries in the form of the highest paid lawyers, people who envelop any court activity in the murkiest of smokescreens and find minute technicalities to gain acquittals for clients who we know and they know are guilty as hell.

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But every once in a while we succeed.  It doesn’t happen often, and maybe it will only be the player of the triangle rather than the conductor orchestrating events across five continents, the one who overlooked orders and sent an insecure email to his mate – and he will be the one they sacrifice.  This is a game played for the highest stakes, one where we land a major player who makes a deal and names other players, but once that dead wood has been cut out fresh players have emerged to fill the vacuum.  It never stops, but the tools and techniques grow ever more sophisticated by the week – and when you have the brightest minds on the side of evil we on the side of good and decency will always be struggling to catch up.

Even so, I live for those moments, the ones where in the films you see the police going out to get pissed in the nearest boozer.  In my case I go home to see the wife and family, people who in the course of an investigation probably forget that I exist.  It was on one such evening when I had gone home early to see my young kids and to be greeted with frosty sarcasm by my wife that the call came.  It was a case we’d had on our radar for a short while, thanks to some unsubstantiated allegations by a whistleblower.

The company was a global conglomerate with interests in many fields.  At one time it had a traditional British name, but along the way it had acquired one of those branded names that sound good in 19 different languages.  Sadly I’m not allowed to reveal the name, so I shall call them X.  My contact, whom I shall call Mr Jones for these purposes, had been working in a highly profitable division relating to provision of international leasing and other services, which some colleagues had long suspected was a cover for laundering at the very least.

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Most whisteblowers get out with something, a few documents or a recording.  In this case security was tight as a gnat’s arse so he didn’t dare let himself be caught smuggling documents, faxing or anything for fear of discovery.  In this company the guy had worked for nearly 10 years and had grown to fear his employer with acute paranoia.  He felt sure that his phone was tapped and that he was being followed, though when our boys tailed him and searched his house no untoward activity came to light.

Nevertheless, the presence of metal detectors and a very high security presence on an informal visit to the company UK headquarters in Canary Wharf was enough to arouse suspicion, particularly when it was made quite clear the police were not welcome and that nobody but a smarmy PR officer was available to talk, and even then he would only meet at another venue some distance from the company hub, evidently retained for these purposes.  A polite enquiry about the person concerned revealed that the man in question had been dismissed for breach of contract relating to his personal conduct on site; our questions were batted away with assurances that the man was untrustworthy and bore a grievance against the company, which always operated within the law and to the highest professional standards.  Without evidence sufficient to bring a charge we would be dead in the water.

I was present at the initial meeting along with a colleague.  My suspicions were aroused, not by what was said but by two facts: the PR exec was perfectly briefed on the employee in question and anticipated our questions; and because we said nothing whatever about accusations of malpractice, yet reading between the lines that was precisely what was assumed by our interlocutor – he was playing the game before the dice had been thrown.  Nothing material, but more than enough to arouse suspicion among experienced officers.

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From that point on, I wanted to know more.  I started by bringing the accuser back in for two days of exhaustive questioning, during which he became increasingly twitchy.  He was not simply paranoid about legal action for the company, but scared for his life, and told us so at regular intervals.  At one point he stood up and leaned forward so his face was within inches of mine.  Normally I would caution him to sit down but the passion etched on his face told me to hang back and listen.  I felt the spittle on my face as he spoke but stayed calm.  The sheer passion of his fear told me it was quite genuine, and he sure as hell did not want word of his relationship with the police to leak out until he had a new identity, a new life and a large sum in a new bank account.

I pushed him for names, dates, details, but in essence the only players he was prepared to name three execs, the ones he knew to be involved in dodgy dealings.  The first was his own boss, James Booker, a man with a reputation in financial circles but who was never mentioned by the company, though Interpol and the CIA were also tracking him.  Even the PR did not say a word about Booker but promised to get back to us; naturally there was no further call.

Our man saw him once a month or thereabouts, and was often given baffling orders that bore little relation to the business deals they were running, but they were followed up as if they were mission critical.  One such task was when our guy was ordered to track the share price of a small but wealthy company specialising in executive jet hire.  The nature of the lease contract did not justify such close scrutiny so his suspicions were deeply aroused.

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A little light surveillance revealed that Booker spent a great deal of time globetrotting, usually to exotic locations.  One of our men, lucky sod, spent a weekend tailing Booker in the Virgin Isles, but came back none the wiser.  No dodgy-looking individuals were seen talking sotto voce with the man, nor interesting people knocking discreetly at his door.  In fact, it was not obvious why Booker had travelled to such an exotic location, though he did not appear aware of being followed.

The second name mentioned was, if anything, more elusive.  Although he is Russian by birth and upbringing, Viktor Vasilievich Naumenko shows no signs of allegiance to or contacts with Russia.  However, he occupies a corner office on the executive floor of corporate headquarters.  What he did there was uncertain, though his business card revealed him to be a corporate restructuring specialist.  What drew suspicion to Naumenko was quite the opposite of Booker: he seldom left his corner office, never met corporate clients, never did anything you would expect of senior executives – though he was often to be found in conference with other senior execs – all of whom cancelled their afternoon engagements when Viktor demanded their time.  The telling blow was much simpler: the Russian’s ex-boyfriend backed our Mr Jones by suggesting he was engaged in a major fraud, and that this led to the end of their relationship.

The final name was unusual in many ways.  Women at senior levels are a rare species in international finance companies, but this one was a very public spokesperson whenever the company was mentioned in the City.  Laura Perks had been a high flier throughout her career, had been married to the owner of a hedge fund but was now rumoured to be single and scathing of any man who dared approach her.  She had been mentioned because most executive orders and projects carried her signature.  She was not the most senior person, but the CEO and chief financial officer seemed very camera shy by comparison.  Her brief was, according to the company website, planning and change; the view among insiders including our guy was that she was a conduit, a go-between, a mouthpiece.

What everyone agreed was that she knew far more than she ever told, but what they probably didn’t know was the one blemish on Laura’s record: as a young trader she had been prosecuted for a technical breach which enabled a colleague to engage in insider trading.  She was given a 6 month suspended sentence but strangely was promoted, not sacked.

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Clearly it would not be possible to arrest any of these bigwigs on suspicion, so we had to find a reason to take to them on our terms.  As luck would have it, there was an opportunity quicker than expected: Naumenko had acquired a large pile of parking tickets but paid none.  I arranged for our uniformed colleagues to interview him, but joined the meeting without explaining who I was – in fact I stood behind the two-way glass for some while before entering the room.

People brought in for this kind of interview are either  apologetic and humble, scared shitless, angry and indignant, or cool as cucumbers; Viktor decidedly belonged to the final school.  He sat comfortably in the plastic bucket seat, immaculately groomed and resplendent in a costly three-piece suit.  He spoke in a quiet voice to confirm his name and address, to acknowledge his car and each offence listed.  He made no excuse or apology but did offer to pay in full and final settlement when threatened with prosecution.

As instructed by me, the sergeant made a threatening speech about the likely consequences including a jail term then stormed out, switching off the tape recorder as he went.  Throughout this pantomime the Russian sat in poker-faced silence, but he looked up when I walked into the room and sat opposite, weighing him up.

“Coffee?” I asked.  He politely shook a his elegant head and looked me straight in the eyes, his senses telling him the game had changed and that danger lurked.

“May I ask who you are?” he enquired casually in perfect English with a tiny hint of residual Russian accent.

“Inspector Martin Fisher, Serious Fraud Office.”

“So not traffic offences then?” he smiled, though the smile faded.

“No, not traffic offences.  Viktor – do you mind if I call you Viktor? – I’m enquiring into irregular money flows conducted by your employer.  I have a list of dates and transactions you might be able to explain.  They suggest activities that are not reflected in your trading accounts.”

tom-jerry-pic-e1314560581119Viktor shrugged lazily and inclined his head, the better to inspect the window above and behind my head.

“We can do this two ways, Viktor: either you help us now and we quietly forget the traffic charges; or we bring you in as a suspect for large-scale money laundering.  We might even throw in a bit of drug smuggling for good measure, what do you say?”

Viktor looked at me with the expression of one bored with games.  “If you’re going to start making threats

 

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