Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

Lawyers facing fraud probes

Investigations are going on in legal, banking and public sector fields

A senior police officer has revealed that a number of Northern Ireland's lawyers are currently facing Fraud Squad investigations.

Detective Superintendent Roy McComb, who leads the PSNI's Economic Crime Bureau, also voiced concern about self-regulation arrangements within the legal profession.

He was speaking to the Belfast Telegraph with colleague Detective Chief Inspector John Sherry, head of the Bureau's Fraud Squad.

They said that the Fraud Squad's current workload involves some 30 investigations, with alleged criminal proceeds in the region of £18m. The probes include cases in the legal, banking and public sectors.

Det Supt McComb said criminal actions by solicitors represent a breach of trust.

"If a guy walks into your house who you haven't invited and he looks like what you perceive to be an archetypal criminal, you are going to be suspicious.

"If you invite a guy into your house who's a solicitor you are less suspicious. There is a trust factor when people have a standing and a professional kudos."

The ongoing cases against lawyers come on top of the high-profile inquiry into Belfast solicitor George Brangam.

He died in August while still under investigation for allegedly siphoning off hundreds of thousands of pounds from health bodies he had represented.

The Brangam investigation is expected to be formally closed shortly as a result of his death.

It is likely that the case will later be examined by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) at Stormont, in light of the alleged losses to the health service.

The PAC was today due to hold a hearing on fraud - with particular reference to a £70,000 loss within the Government's Ordnance Survey agency.

Det Supt McComb believes the Assembly will bring increased focus on preventing scams within the public sector.

" Now that we have a devolved Government with devolved responsibilities, including control of money, local ministers will have to take cognizance of the fact that there will be people who will try to steal their money," he said.

"They will want to put in place rigorous fraud prevention measures.

"What we are keen to say is that this is not a victimless crime.

"Every pound that is taken out of the public sector is a pound that doesn't go to health and education, is a pound that doesn't go to roads, is a pound that doesn't go to the environment.

"It is a pound that doesn't go to all the things that this country wants."

Detective Chief Inspector Sherry stressed that fraud cases can be complex and lengthy.

"Lots of ... suspects have spent years in their particular job or area of expertise. You are not dealing with people who make rash decisions.

"Generally, the people we deal with as suspects are very, very articulate and very well educated."

The number of current probes involving lawyers was not disclosed, but is understood to represent a significant part of the Fraud Squad's current work.

Mr McComb expressed some misgivings about self-regulation systems within the legal profession.

A spokesman for the Law Society told the Belfast Telegraph: "The society always reports criminal activity to the police.

"It also takes strong disciplinary action and reports incidents to the independent Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, which has powers to strike off solicitors."

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