13 July: The Natwest three & The land of the free
As the silly season opens this summer, the British have a new hero or rather triumvirate of heroes. They are not footballers, movie stars or pop singers but bankers. Pick up any British newspaper and the solemn stares of David Bermingham, Giles Darby and Gary Mulgrew gaze out at you.
The Three Amigos, former investment bankers with NatWest (now owned by Royal Bank of Scotland), are fighting extradition to the US, where they are accused of fraud relating to the collapse of Enron. An unholy alliance of senior businessmen, members of parliament and under-employed do-gooders have all jumped on the bandwagon. There is a lot of talk about miscarriage of justice, young children parted from their hard-working fathers and unquenchable legal costs.
I knew something was awry in all this when I discussed the case with David Rose, a top investigative journalist who writes for the UK’s Observer newspaper. David is a persistent gnat in the flank of the American military authorities and seems to be permanently camped outside Guantanamo Bay. David immediately saw the Amigos as yet more oppressed victims of the evil Bush regime. “Would you like to write an article on the case for the Observer magazine, Abigail?” he enquired solicitously. My answer was a curt: “Certainly not.”
The case against the NatWest three centres on an off-balance-sheet vehicle created in 1999 by Andrew Fastow, Enron’s CFO. It is alleged by the US prosecutors that in 2000 the Amigos and certain Enron employees caused NatWest to accept a low-valuation of $1 million for its interest in the vehicle, told Enron that NatWest needed to be paid $20 million and effectively pocketed the difference. All three British men deny any wrongdoing. But their appeals against extradition to the US have failed and this morning they were due to be bundled aboard a plane to Texas to answer criminal charges.
The arguments against the UK’s 2003 Extradition Act have been widely rehearsed. It is not reciprocated by the US and does not require
Enron was a tale of hubris, hypocrisy and, above all, greed that we should never forget. All the pigs were guzzling at the trough together: the senior Enron managers, the lawyers, the accountants and, of course, the bankers. In 2001, the final year of the company’s existence, Enron’s senior management kept lying about illusory profits and kept selling their own Enron shares. Last week, Ken Lay, the former founder of Enron, died of a rather timely heart attack before what would have been a rather lengthy jail term. Although convicted of fraud at a recent trial, his death will make restitution for those he had wronged more difficult. Fastow will serve up to 10 years in prison for fraud. He siphoned off some $45 million from the off-balance-sheet companies that he created.
Amidst all the outcry about the Amigos, please spare a thought for the thousands of Enron investors and employees who lost everything when the company unravelled. It sounds hard-hearted but the fact that three British bankers might languish in a Texas prison before they are tried (assuming bail is denied), does not trouble me. Any experienced banker should have realized that Andy Fastow was not Florence Nightingale cunningly disguised in a suit and tie. And the NatWest three were hardly naïve schoolgirls. Gary Mulgrew once worked as a bouncer in a Glasgow nightclub. “Bouncer to banker... is there really a synergy of skills here?” a friend asked. If you think I am being grossly unfair to three innocent men who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, see the film Enron: the smartest guys in the room and then let’s talk.
However, the tale of the Three Amigos raises more interesting questions than whether or not British extradition laws are iniquitous. Why is RBS (the supposed fall guy for the fraud) not suing the Amigos? “No comment,” an RBS spokesperson said firmly. And what of the rottweilers at the British Serious Fraud Office? When contacted, the SFO referred me to the UK attorney general’s comment that he saw no basis to reconsider the decision to leave the ex-NatWest bankers’ case to the US authorities.
Oh that the “Abigail with attitude” column could be bought off so easily. While readers desert their desks in droves, don bikinis (or Vilebrequin bathing shorts) and dart towards the beaches, I will be draped over a hammock in Maine reading a copy of the riveting Batson report. Neal Batson was the court-appointed official examiner in the Enron case. The Three Amigos are not the only Brits who must curse the day they first heard the E word. This autumn, another major US lawsuit relating to Enron (know as the Newby class action), is due to begin. The lead plaintiff is the University of California and the defendants include two British banks: Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland. Ominous? Intriguing? Entertaining? Who knows, but certainly worthy of further investigation!
If the NatWest three do find themselves behind bars, they can take comfort that a new career in the charitable sector may beckon. The oldest transformation in history is sinner to saint, courtesy of a prison cell. The British politician John Profumo showed how it was done: vanquishing the disgrace of a sex scandal by devoting himself to charitable endeavours. For years, the rich have been pontificating: “I want to give something back.” But it is only recently that philanthropy has become the sexiest game in town. A wealthy friend told me in an awed whisper: “I admire Warren Buffett: giving all his money away to a foundation that doesn’t even carry his name.”
I am more cynical, for several reasons. First, wealth dispersion has now become as competitive and cut-throat as wealth accumulation.
The generosity of billionaires puts all the rest of us back in our boxes. What use are our measly contributions now that poverty and disease in the Third World have been sorted? Bill Gates has deprived me of a potential halo and it would be unseemly to complain. It’s counterintuitive, but the whole philanthropy phenomenon makes me increasingly sympathetic to the extravagant antics of footballers’ wives. What’s wrong with good old-fashioned ostentation? And come to that, why not leave all your money to the kids so their lives can disintegrate into a carwreck of drug- or drink-induced hedonism? It’s how the English aristocracy have been living for generations, and they’re still with us.
All this gushing about the new philanthropy (or “Billanthropy” as the cover of last week’s Economist magazine trumpeted) reminds me of the story of the venture capitalist and the fisherman. The fisherman, who led a blissful existence on a paradise-like island, owned one decrepit boat and some mornings did a spot of fishing to provide food for his family. The rest of the time, the fisherman enjoyed himself.
The venture capitalist approached the fisherman: “Excuse me, I could lend you the money to buy another fishing boat.” “And what next?” asked the fisherman. “Well, you would work hard, repay me the money and then I could lend you more money and you could buy a third boat.” “And then what?” “If you worked very hard, you could become an extremely successful fisherman and, eventually, you could retire and enjoy a wonderful life doing nothing.” The fisherman pondered for a few minutes before replying: “You mean, end up where I am now?” And there’s a circularity to this philanthropy jag that irritates me. It’s now a noble calling to create a fortune as long as you end up giving most of it away. Laudable or ever so slightly sad? What do you think?