David Green, said he hoped a ‘surgical’ rather than ‘sprawling’ approach to investigations will keep costs down
David Green, the new boss of the Serious Fraud Office, has pledged to re-examine the type of case the cash-strapped and embattled agency takes on in a move designed to prioritise cases that are beyond the competency of other investigating bodies.
Acknowledging he faces an uphill task to rebuild the SFO’s damaged reputation, he said: “We need to redefine what an SFO case is … When our resources are finite they must be concentrated on strategic rather than across the board.”
Green, who started as SFO director this week, said he hoped a “surgical” rather than “sprawling” approach to investigations would keep costs down and enable the agency to tackle Britain’s biggest fraud cases.
Morale at the SFO reached a low point in February when Green’s predecessor Richard Alderman was forced to issue a grovelling apology for fundamental errors in a search warrant used last year in its largest investigation in almost a decade.
Documents seized from the home and Mayfair offices property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz – who, with his brother Robert, is suspected of having had corrupt relationships with former executives at failed Icelandic bank Kaupthing – were returned to his lawyers after the warrant was effectively quashed.
Alderman conceded the mistakes “involve a wholesale challenge to the SFO’s competence and the good faith of its staff”.
A furious Tchenguiz – who, along with all those targeted in the investigation, denies wrongdoing – has indicated he wants damages of “considerably more than £100m” for the SFO’s bungling.
Green refused to be drawn on whether he intends to continue the investigation into the brothers and their bankers before a judicial review this month.
Green inherits a meagre budget, trimmed from more than £50m four years ago to £36m for 2010-11.
It is projected to be less than £30m in the next two years.
Nevertheless he believes a targeted, strategic approach can produce results. He ruled out a return to so-called “blockbuster” SFO cases, where the attorney general sanctioned additional spending beyond the agency’s planned budget.
“The SFO needs to do the type of investigation it is best equipped to do. Is it really the SFO’s business to do [routine boiler room and mortgage frauds]?,” said Green. “There are others out there such as the Crown Prosecution Service who are well able to do that kind of prosecution.”
Also among Green’s priorities is a determination to send out a clear signal that the SFO is prepared to show its teeth more often than it has in the recent past. “A perception has emerged that we are more inclined to settle than prosecute … I think there is a need to rebalance the focus between prosecution and civil settlement.”
Green has a large number of positions to fill, including rebuilding the SFO’s intelligence capability. He wants to restructure the organisation, personally taking a more direct position at the helm, as the SFO prepares to move to offices just off Trafalgar Square.
Before his arrival, there had been concern that Green had a brief to break up the SFO, folding its prosecutory function into the CPS, and dividing the investigation role between City of London Police and other bodies. Such a plan, backed by the CPS, had been put forward at cabinet by Home Secretary Theresa May last year, but was defeated by other minsters.
Green told the Guardian he was firmly opposed to such a break-up plan. “I have no doubt, in this field, that prosecutors, investigators and accountants work very well together.”
He said the big fraud case would again come to define the agency under his tenure. New powers to prosecute bribery offences would remain an important tool in actions overseas – but only the largest cases, that prevented UK companies from competing for big contracts on a level playing field, would be of interest to him.