Lisa Osofsky’s position as Britain’s chief fraud fighter was spared after a critical report on prosecution failures called for an overhaul of processes at the Serious Fraud Office but not for her head.
The analysis by Sir David Calvert-Smith — a former director of public prosecutions and a retired judge — found that there was “a damaging culture of distrust” between investigators and senior managers at the SFO involved in the botched prosecution for fraud of executives at an energy company.
His findings were published just hours before the Court of Appeal in London quashed the conviction of a third former executive at the Monaco consultancy Unaoil, Stephen Whiteley, 66.
The latest quashed conviction combined with the report’s findings prompted one senior white-collar crime lawyer to describe the SFO as an organisation of “lions led by donkeys”.
In December, Suella Braverman QC, the attorney-general, commissioned a report from Calvert-Smith after the Court of Appeal quashed the first conviction in the Unaoil case, which involved allegations of bribery payments of $17 million. In March a second conviction in the case was quashed.
In their rulings quashing the first two convictions, the appeal judges criticised the SFO for failing to disclose important evidence to defence lawyers. Osofsky, the SFO’s director, was also criticised for her contact with a former US Drug Enforcement Administration investigator, who was described as a “third-party fixer”.
Calvert-Smith, in his report, blamed senior SFO officials involved in the Unaoil investigation for creating a situation where “no-one … was in command of all of the moving parts in what was a large and complex case”.
Calvert-Smith went on to find that there had been “serious tension between SFO officials and US Federal Bureau of Investigation and DoJ [Department of Justice] officials” over the Unaoil investigation.
His report said that “no one person was able to understand the extent of the different aspects of the case and the risks that these posed”.
Calvert-Smith said that the SFO case team investigating the Unaoil case “was insufficiently staffed”, adding that “many of those working on Unaoil had other cases to deal with”.
The report criticised Osofsky specifically for having used “her personal mobile phone” when contacting the so-called American fixer David Tinsley. She was also blamed for having “failed to take contemporaneous notes of meetings and conversations”.
Eoin O’Shea, a senior fraud lawyer at the law firm CMS, said that “the lions led by donkeys metaphor is tempting” but it “does not capture the full picture” of the report.
He said that the SFO had “suffered from very severe neglect in terms of resources and supervision. The result is a lack of institutional prestige, and an insufficiently robust culture as regards the SFO’s core role. Such a culture tends to magnify any poor judgments of the leadership.”
Osofsky declined to respond to questions over her future after the report.
She said that “a new senior leadership team has prioritised investment in technology, introduced a stringent case prioritisation system and we have embedded a change programme to overhaul the SFO’s working practices and culture”.
Braverman said she would update parliament on progress in November and February.
Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney-general, called on Braverman to implement in full the report’s recommendations. She said it was “vital” that the attorney-general “asks herself whether the senior managers at the SFO whose failures are exposed in this report are really the individuals best placed to repair the damage”.