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UK seeks new anti-fraud head after crime agencies overhaul

LONDON, Dec 12 (Reuters) - The British government on Tuesday began a long-delayed hunt for a new head of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) after announcing plans to create a new national economic crime center with the power to instruct the anti-fraud agency to investigate cases.

The government, which said on Monday that the new department would form part of the National Crime Agency (NCA), has given itself four months to find a replacement for SFO director David Green, who steps down in April.

The advertisement for the 170,000 pound ($226,500) per year job, with a term of up to five years, was welcomed by lawyers. But they worried that granting powers over the SFO to a new unit of the NCA, which reports directly to the Home Secretary (interior minister), could lead to political inteference.

"It is a matter of considerable concern that ... legislation is to be enacted enabling the National Crime Agency to directly task the SFO to undertake particular investigations," said Stephen Parkinson, head of criminal litigation at Kingsley Napley.

"This proposed legislation takes away from the SFO's independence and for the first time gives a politician a say in what work it undertakes."

Other lawyers warned that any prospective SFO candidates would want to understand how such changes would affect the role, how a new national economic crime center would be funded and how that might change SFO funding. Alison Geary, counsel at law firm WilmerHale, said the SFO could be "substantially altered."

"It remains to be seen how much this new plan differs to previous proposals to roll the SFO into the NCA," she said.

The SFO, which has an annual budget of around 35 million pounds ($47 million) and therefore has to request extra government funding for its top cases, has often been criticized by lawmakers over its efforts to bring companies and senior individuals to book.

Britain's ruling Conservative Party pledged in May to scrap the SFO and fold it into the NCA, but the plans drew fierce criticisim from lawyers and anti-corruption groups and were dropped from its two-year policy program one month later.

The four-year-old NCA has a broad remit to tackle offenses ranging from organized crime to border policing and economic crime. Its new national economic crime center is to crack down harder on money laundering by drug dealers and people traffickers, who are expected to net 90 billion pounds this year.

But the SFO, tasked with investigating and prosecuting serious or complex fraud, bribery and corruption, has had an eventful year that lawyers say is helping establish a record for itself.

It has been praised by politicians and some lawyers for securing deferred prosecution agreements with Rolls-Royce and Tesco, yielding combined fines of around 630 million pounds, and filing unprecedented criminal charges against Barclays and former senior executives over alleged wrongdoing in the credit crisis era. ($1 = 0.7505 pounds) (Reporting by Kirstin Ridley; Editing by Greg Mahlich)