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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 October, 2004, 23:03 GMT 00:03 UK
Agency takes aim at false profits
By Jeremy Scott-Joynt
BBC News Online business reporter

There's a story going round the Assets Recovery Agency (ARA), the little-known body set up by the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to hunt down criminals' ill-gotten gains.

ARA Director Jane Earl
Jane Earl: a newish recruit to law enforcement
In one of its recent raids, investigators found themselves transfixed by the reading matter on the target's bedside table: the massive 500-clause Act itself.

ARA staff take that as a compliment.

If the crooks are taking the time to read the bible of asset recovery, they reason, they must be making a difference.


Just now, the ARA is basking in the glow of recent success.

It has just scored its biggest win to date: the confiscation of 3.6m from Curtis Warren, currently serving a 16-year term in a Dutch jail for drug-related offences.

Not that the ARA, established in February 2003, is quite what one would expect.

Its discreet offices in the City of London once housed part of an investment bank.

Its staff are civilians, not police officers: "financial investigators" or FIs, a new class of enforcer invented by the Act in 2002.

And its boss, Jane Earl, isn't from a law enforcement background. Till her appointment, she was a local government chief executive.

'Two bites at the cherry'

This caused some consternation among experts at the time, amid worries about whether an outsider could bring the agency into being - let alone ride out the flak it would generate.

Frankly, I sleep easy in my bed
Jane Earl, ARA Director

Why flak? The idea behind the ARA - that criminals should not profit from their activities - is hardly controversial.

But it pursues the cases it receives from the police, customs and other agencies through the civil courts.

For the ARA to succeed in a civil court, it has to prove that assets are "more likely than not" the proceeds of crime.

To secure a criminal conviction, the burden of proof is "beyond reasonable doubt".

Indeed, you don't have to be convicted to be a target for the ARA.

Mr Warren and his associates were found not guilty - "wrongfully acquitted", said the judge - of drugs offences by UK courts .

Critics insist that this amounts to the authorities having "two bites at the cherry" with authorities being able to try again in the civil courts - where there is a lower standard of proof - if a criminal case fails.

Funding the fight

With the Warren confiscation order less than a month old, none of that bothers Ms Earl.

"That kind of point can and will be made - particularly by those who have a lot to lose from the legislation," she says.

Man in handcuffs
Drug barons:
Brian Brendan Wright, worth 100+m
Michael Tyrrell, worth 100m
Curtis Warren, worth 80+m
John Palmer (timeshares), worth 300m
Sheridan Leslie Cox (boiler room fraud), worth 280m
A Scottish-based team* (VAT fraud), worth 30m
Tom 'Slab' Murphy (tobacco and oil), worth 35-40m
The Deo Gang (people), worth 37m
Martin Potter (drugs, tobacco and arms), worth 25m
Source: BBC
(*: can't be named for legal reasons)

"But frankly, I sleep easy in my bed."

The money from cases like Warren - which takes confiscations to more than 5m, with more than 16m frozen - goes straight into a Home Office fund for use in crime reduction efforts.

Meanwhile, the ARA's Centre of Excellence - the agency is the national training centre for financial investigation - has turned out more than 1600 FIs.

Some of them - with what Ms Earl calls an "absolute, almost pathological desire to play their part in taking things away from people who shouldn't have them" - work for the ARA. Many more are assigned to police forces and other agencies up and down the country.

She is therefore having a pretty good time. Even though in legal terms she not only leads the agency, but embodies it all on her own, as a "corporation sole".

This legal device which means all the ARA's powers are vested directly in its boss - and its responsibilities, too, are legally hers alone.

"If it all goes horribly wrong, then it's me who's accountable, and I think that clarity's hugely helpful," she says. "It makes sure that it's me making the decision on which cases we take, not a politician asking us to go after anyone."

'Something happens'

She had her doubts when first approached for the position in 2002.

The approach came from a firm of headhunters, at a time when she'd been running Wokingham Council for almost three years.

"I went through the whole process being dragged kicking and screaming to the interview table," she says.

But over the following weeks, the deal became more and more attractive.

Years of working with ordinary people had made her aware of one of their biggest concerns about crime.

"They'd say to me: 'we know there's these people who make a lot of money from stealing this or that, and nothing ever happens to them.'

"Well, the message now is that something does happen to them."

Learning curve

Not that it's all gone precisely as planned. The ARA has exceeded its targets, but cases are taking longer - and costing more - than expected.

The house in Crawfordsburn owned by Jim Johnston
The ARA seized this house in Northern Ireland earlier this year
"We have to accept that, because we've got some serious powers and it would be wrong of us to use them in ways which cut corners," Ms Earl says.

"We're doing things where we're clutching the moral high ground, and we have to behave in ways where we can continue to hold that position."

And given the billions which flow through criminal channels every year, the ARA's activities may seem like a drop in the ocean.

Ms Earl acknowledges that it is still early days.

"We've got 18 months of experience, and we're tackling - so to speak - 180 years of criminality," she says.

But people are beginning to get the message.

Surveys done for the ARA suggest that its work is being recognised on the ground.

And businesses are cottoning on too.

The ARA's bi-weekly "proceeds of crime update" currently goes to 3,500 e-mail addresses, and is forwarded to thousands more to help them spot trends and fight money laundering.

"One man from Barclays showed me an e-mail from a woman in their San Francisco liaison office, who said that reading the update while sipping a glass of wine on her balcony overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge was the highlight of her month," Ms Earl says."

"I'm asking myself why I can't arrange a personal delivery."

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25 Jul 02 |  UK News

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