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Investment Fraud

1 June 2012

Being on the wrong side of an investment fraud prosecution

The Serious Fraud Office’s website displays a ‘taxonomy of fraud’ – an interactive pie-chart depicting 7 different areas of fraud. The sub-category of ‘investment fraud’ lists a number of different scams; bonds or boiler-room frauds, pyramid and Ponzi schemes, pension liberation frauds, land banking scams and so on. These are all just labels of course – the various schemes amount to no more than a sophisticated way of clever people stealing from naïve or greedy people.

Getting the right man

Was that investment really a scam, was it really bound to fail? A falsehood from beginning to end? Are those lies uttered by the suspect part of a dishonest scheme, or just the sales patter of an enthusiastic true believer who has gone too far? Sometimes the only difference between riches or prosecution is success. Pull it off and you’re a great success, fail and you’re a fraudster.

Selling shares in firms that don’t exist is one thing. That’s an ‘investment fraud’ but the prosecution can present it to the jury as really just a sophisticated con trick. What about selling perfectly lawful investment schemes to the public that most people wouldn’t touch with a barge pole? Some of the so called pension ‘liberation’ schemes provide a good example. It is perfectly legitimate for an investor to take his/her money out of their pension scheme and perhaps invest the money elsewhere. There are firms out there that will do all the formalities for, for a fee. The Pensions Regulator has advised the public that these schemes often make little economic sense and can leave the individual much the poorer. Bad or poor investing is however not the same as fraud. That is why we have regulators such as the Pensions Regulator and the Financial Services Authority. Their very existence recognises that there is an essential difference between the need to prosecute dishonest schemers, and the very different need of protecting Joe public from, for example, buying some inappropriate investment from an uncaring, overzealous but not dishonest broker.

Investigators and prosecutors do and will get that distinction wrong. That is when honest traders end up in the dock.

Dishonesty

The authors, between them, have or currently are, defending chartered accountants, investment brokers, hedge fund managers, directors, mortgage brokers independent financial advisors and so on. All of these cases are markedly different. All are hugely complex, yet all have the same key ingredient at the very heart of the case; the question of dishonesty. Whether it’s a Fraud Act prosecution, a conspiracy to cheat allegation or conspiracy to defraud case the prosecution fails unless the jury is persuaded, to a very high standard, that the intent of the defendant was a dishonest one. Not only was the investment scheme a dishonest one, but the defendant knew it and dishonestly took part.

The question of dishonesty is always a matter of fact for the jury and it always relates to the defendant’s state of mind – not his conduct. In Ghosh [1982] QB 1053, the Court of Appeal set down the proper approach. It is a two-stage test. The jury must be directed first of all to decide whether “according to the ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people what was done was dishonest” (this is assuming ‘what was done’ is proven). If so the jury then goes onto to consider whether the defendant “himself must have realised that what he was doing was by those standards dishonest….” This is the so-called objective/subjective test of putting a reasonable ordinary man in the shoes of the defendant.

All defenders in these types of cases must keep the question of dishonesty at the heart of their strategy for the case.

The prosecution have to prove dishonesty but, in reality, there will often be a pressing need for the defendant to show either honesty or a clear lack of dishonesty.

Empathy

Fraud work is often seen to be the less exciting relation to the blood and guts of everyday criminal litigation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Demonstrating honesty, without sounding defensive, requires tapping into the ‘human condition’; understanding the peculiarities of the defendant’s nature, his everyday practices which have led him to this point-an innocent man, with a lot of explaining to do.

Defendants understand this; it is often the case that those innocently caught up in these sorts of cases will be concerned that the jury will simply not understand them, and that they will not appreciate the need for the complex financial arrangements at hand, or will be instinctively be suspicious of the motives of those in the dock who are presented in the prosecution’s Case Summary as sophisticated and avaricious thieves without a shred of compassion for those they fleece. Those defendants know the truth is much more complex and requires detailed explanation. But often what worries them is that, to really appreciate their case, they have to get across a real understanding of their particular industry, how it works on the ground. Not just a ‘knowledge’, but a real ‘feel’ of how, for example, accountants audit accounts, or how investment brokers earn their fees. Then the ‘dodgy emails’ or whatever appear less damming. But faced with having to explain so much it is no wonder that defendants in thesecircumstances worry – a great many will have never been in trouble before.

The key is to remember dishonesty is always at the heart of the case and that creating empathy is at the heart of demonstrating honesty. It is vital for defenders to get under the skin of those they represent. To truly put the jury in the shoes of the innocent defendant the jury must know the man, know his motivation, understand his impulses, his pressures, his foibles his strengths and weaknesses and then, and only then, ask ‘can I be sure he was acting dishonestly?

Experts

Of course the defence can use experts to demonstrate industry norms and accepted practice. But more than that, experts can really be put to good use when it comes to creating empathy with the jury. So, for example, an accountant in trouble for conspiracy to cheat can use an independent expert to explain to the jury what would be professionally expected of an accountant in such and such situation, and how he or she appears to have complied with all the regularity requirements with little that would stand out as unusual or odd. But that only goes so far because the jury knows there was a fraud – the question is did the accountant know too – was he or she helping others? Then experts can really come into their own by an examination, for example, of other business in the defendant’s firm – a comparing and contrasting not just with industry norms but how, day to day, the evidence is that the defendant did nothing different than he or she appears to have done for any other of his or her clients. That more holistic approach helps the jury put themselves in the shoes of the defendant – which is after all what the Ghosh test is all about. This is really what the jury are looking for - it helps for them to be able to empathise with the man in the dock, as just a guy doing his job, day in day, out as best he can. Then the mountain of explanation that has to be given to explain a dodgy document or a suspect email starts to appear surmountable. A solid defence then appears, with lots of technical aspects, but always focussed on creating empathy and demonstrating lack of dishonesty.

Disclosure

Many investment frauds will be huge cases in terms of the paperwork produced in the course of the investigation. There will usually be lots of what is called ‘digital unused material’. This is simply material stored on computers that have been seized and examined and which the prosecution are not relying on. In July last year the Attorney General produced his ‘Supplementary’ Guidelines on disclosure in relation to digitally stored material. That document coupled with Lord Justice Gross’ Review of Disclosure from September last year provides defenders with ammunition to positively engage and influence the way investigators handle the seized digital material. For example the defence can ask the Crown to explain why it is looking for certain key words in digital searches – a little known power, but one that can help defenders understand the mind-set of those conducting the searches and make their own search term requests in response.

Defence Case Statements are taking on increasing importance as these two latest missives highlight. It is vital that these are drafted with care and skill because in investment fraud cases the real gems for defenders will often lie in the unused material. For example there maybe reams of material about similar transactions to the ones under scrutiny which raise no concern, or other evidence that patterns of behaviour highlighted as suspicious are in fact quite usual – all depends on the facts but that empathy that vital understanding needs to be reached at any early stage so that the Defence Statement maximises the potential for the fullest possible rights of disclosure.

Conclusion

Investment frauds then are not unlike any other criminal case is so many ways. There is plenty of scope for the Crown to get the wrong man. But investment frauds are complex – dishonesty is the essence of the offence and the building a positive case against those inferences of dishonesty will usually require a deep and early understanding of the whole case, so that the disclosure process is maximised in favour of the defence so that the job of building empathy can start straight away.

Authors

Jonathan Lennon is a Barrister specialising in serious and complex criminal defence case at 23 Essex Street Chambers in London. He is a contributing author to Covert Human Intelligence Sources, (2008 Waterside Press) and has extensive experience in all aspects of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

Aziz Rahman is a Solicitor- Advocate and Partner at the leading Criminal Defence firm Rahman Ravelli Solicitors, specialising in Human Rights, Financial Crime and Large Scale Conspiracies/Serious crime. Rahman Ravelli are members of the Specialist Fraud Panel and have recently been ranked by Legal 500 as an 'excellent' firm with Aziz Rahman being described as 'first class and very experienced'.


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