UK lawmakers urge fraud agency staff to return payoffs

LONDON Wed Jul 17, 2013 3:14pm BST

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LONDON (Reuters) - Lawmakers want two former executives at Britain's top fraud prosecutor to return thousands of pounds in payoffs after "a catalogue of errors and poor judgement" under the agency's previous boss.

Richard Alderman, the former head of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), was lambasted in March by parliamentarians for agreeing the packages.

As the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) parliamentary spending watchdog published a report on the case, lawmaker Richard Bacon said Alderman showed a "woefully inadequate grasp" of how to manage public money and that the SFO's reputation and staff morale had been undermined.

Although the SFO has seen the number of convictions drop and costs rise since David Green took over as SFO director in April last year, Bacon welcomed his efforts to strengthen governance while urging him to minimise spending.

"The new director should also explore all possibilities to minimise the cost to the taxpayer, including requesting that the recipients of special severance payments repay the money," he said.

Alderman signed off special severance payments of 15,000 pounds to former CEO Phillippa Williamson and former chief operating officer Chris Bailes, despite advice they were not necessary and were not approved by the government.

UPHILL TASK

Green has vowed to focus on top and complex cases and has scrapped guidelines that meant companies might avoid prosecution if they reported corruption.

He is now under mounting pressure to deliver convictions which in his first year fell to 14 from 39.

The SFO brought 12 cases to trial last year, involving 20 defendants and scored a 70 percent conviction rate. But this was down from the previous year, when it brought 19 trials, involving 54 people, with a 72 percent conviction rate.

The average cost of cases, stripping out staff costs, surged to almost 840,000 pounds from 670,000 in 2011-12.

The SFO has had a chequered past.

Notable successes, such as last year's conviction of fraudster Asil Nadir 19 years after he fled the UK, have been eclipsed by failures like a botched probe into the Tchenguiz property moguls that left it nursing a 300 million pound damages claim.

The agency's largest and most complex current investigation is an inquiry into the rigging of Libor benchmark interest rates.

($1 = 0.6613 British pounds)

(Editing by David Cowell)

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