Vomiting into fireplaces, betting £15 million on Sports Direct’s share price, paying £1 million plus bonuses to certain top managers from his own pocket to keep down the wages of other staff … Mike Ashley, Sports Direct’s founder, might seem like just a “power-drinking, money-making machine” to lawyers and judges in the high court, but to his employees earning less than the minimum wage and working in Victorian workhouse conditions his jolly japes are less amusing.
Ashley is probably the biggest personality to have appeared in Britain’s growing rogues’ gallery in the last couple of years, though he is not the only one. But why are there so many of them? Is it because there are more “big time” corporate crooks and fraudsters in Britain than elsewhere, or is the U.K.’s enforcement system—from the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to the Metropolitan Police—just better at tracking them down and hauling them into court?
On the one hand, I really can’t remember the last time a senior U.S. executive was in court—not unless I go back to the WorldComs, Adelphias, and Tycos of the early millennium. But in the United Kingdom, it is a daily occurrence. It could be just that the FBI is occupied with other issues at the moment, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that.
So, let’s look at a few other examples, just in the last couple of weeks. There’s John Varley (the former chief executive of Barclays) and three former colleagues, who were in court earlier this month after an announcement by the SFO last month that they were to be prosecuted over the way Barclays raised billions of pounds from Qatar in 2008. They are the first senior bankers to face criminal charges for events dating back to the banking crisis.
Then there is former Royal Bank of Scotland CEO Fred Goodwin, who narrowly missed a day in court—so far—when his former employer promised to reimburse defrauded investors pennies on the pound for their investment in the bank. And there is Lloyds’ handling of its acquisition of HBOS. A week ago, redacted portions were disclosed from the FCA investigation into an HBOS lending unit that was exploiting troubled companies by extending unauthorised credit to them. A Thames Valley police investigation led to jail time for six HBOS managers at the unit while Lloyds disclosed nothing about its knowledge of the investigation. It is now working with the FCA to investigate the cover-up.
I really can’t remember the last time a senior U.S. executive was in court—not unless I go back to the WorldComs, Adelphias, and Tycos of the early millennium. But in the United Kingdom, it is a daily occurrence. It could be just that the FBI is occupied with other issues at the moment, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that.
And there’s British American Tobacco, multinational but headquartered in London, which, according to a Guardian newspaper investigation, has been stonewalling tobacco legislation and taxation in Kenya, Uganda, and at least six other African countries. At BAT’s annual meeting in March, its chairman Richard Burrows brushed aside questions about the scandal. At the same time, the company is “cooperating” with the SFO about allegations of bribes paid to government officials in several of the countries.
That’s a lot of investigations and prosecutions. But it doesn’t always work out that way. Notorious security firm G4S is probably most famous for its failure to provide security at the London Olympics. Its latest issue concerns another SFO investigation which saw hundreds of millions of pounds of overcharging for a contract to tag offenders, many of whom were disclosed as being dead or in jail. This case has not been properly resolved at a time when on 10 July it was revealed that the Ministry of Justice had awarded yet another contract to the company for the electronic tagging of offenders.
Then HM Revenue and Customs began to ask questions of financial services firm Anderson Group about a scheme it had been promoting to recruitment agencies to set up thousands of tiny companies—each with a single Philippines-based director—to avoid tax and benefit from government reimbursements. Another Guardian investigation showed a web of companies all associated with Anderson majority shareholder Adam Fynn, though all these connections were “removed” from company documents when the newspaper started to ask questions and the thousands of companies were liquidated, making it all but impossible for HMRC to investigate.
A statement issued by Anderson Group in response to the Guardian’s request for comment just about sums it up: “In all cases our services are provided in accordance with the law as it stands and, where appropriate, under advisement from counsel. If the law changes, then our services do so as appropriate. We constantly seek QC or other professional opinion to ensure that we act within the rules at all times.”
So you can have the best laws and enforcement in the world, but every second someone is looking to subvert them.