SFO steps up Barclays-Qatar probe

Caroline Binham and Patrick Jenkins

Bob Diamond, John Varley and other senior members of Barclays' former management are set to be questioned under caution by the U.K.'s Serious Fraud Office, in an acceleration of its probe into alleged corrupt arrangements in Qatar as part of the bank's emergency cash call in 2008.

For Barclays, which launched a restructuring plan last week to improve profitability, the news is an unwelcome reminder of the issues hanging over the bank.

"They've just sliced off two arms and a leg, and still someone's out to get them," said one person involved.

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In what could be some of the most prominent criminal interviews to date with banking executives over events that took place in the financial crisis, a dozen individuals have now been either interviewed under caution or called for interview by the SFO, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Apart from Mr Diamond and Mr Varley, both former chief executives of Barclays, they include Roger Jenkins, former head of the bank's tax advisory business, and Chris Lucas, former finance director.

An interview under caution suggests the SFO believes it may have reasonable grounds to suspect that the individual has committed an offence. Such interviews are preceded by the warning: "You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court."

Such questioning does not require arrest and can instead be scheduled by appointment, as is the case with the Barclays' probe.

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Simon Dawson | Bloomberg via Getty Images

Mr Jenkins had his interview before Easter, Mr Lucas's is expected to take place over the next few weeks, while no date has been set for any interviews of Mr Varley or Mr Diamond, people familiar with the probe told the Financial Times. No charging decision will be reached until the interviews have been conducted.

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For the bank, the ultimate risk of the SFO's investigation is a corporate prosecution under the UK's antiquated corruption laws, which have since been overhauled by the 2011 Bribery Act. Under the old laws, the SFO must prove that a so-called directing mind of a company knew of and ordered bribes.

The U.K. financial regulator has said it wants to impose a £50 million fine on the bank, which Barclays is contesting, for failing to disclose £322 million ($543 million) in fees paid to Qatari investors. This brings the total of disclosed fees and commissions paid to investors in the Gulf state in 2008 to £450 million – more than 7 percent of the capital invested.

The bank revealed the existence of the regulatory probe in July 2012.

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The SFO, Barclays and Mr Jenkins declined to comment. Lawyers for Mr Lucas and Mr Varley declined to comment. A lawyer for Qatar Holding did not respond to a request seeking comment.

A spokesman for Mr Diamond, who was head of Barclays' investment bank at the time of the capital raising, said: "Mr Diamond will continue to assist wherever he can on anything related to Barclays, but he is unable to comment on any specific inquiry. He is very proud of his tenure at the bank."

Mr Diamond denies any wrongdoing.