Ros Wright is a busy woman, and seems to like it that way. Less than two weeks after her contract as head of the Serious Fraud Office expired, she was taking on the role of head of the ICAEW’s Fraud Advisor, Panel.
In fact, all in all, she currently holds a total of 13 jobs, paid and unpaid.
However, with a mass of experience in fraud, it perhaps wasn’t much of a surprise that she was the ideal candidate to fill the position on the institute’s panel.
Wright has had a long and distinguished career that started in earnest when she was called to the bar in 1964. She spent four and a half years practising general common law in chambers but the irregular hours the role entailed, combined with bringing up a family, meant that she moved into the civil service for the director of public prosecutions department. She intended the role to be a temporary one but liked it so much that she ended up staying for 18 years.
In this position she dealt with some of the most high-profile and serious criminal cases of the time. Her remit covered some of the most distasteful cases involving murders, armed robbery, gang killings and terrorism, handling among others, the 1973 bombing of the Old Bailey.
She then got her first taste of working in fraud when she moved to the recently established Fraud Division, which handled all major fraud cases in the country.
The Fraud Division was the precursor to what is now the Serious Fraud Office, and while it was fairly quiet to start with, it introduced some major changes to the way fraud was investigated. However, Wright was not there to see the beginnings of the organisation she was eventually to lead, leaving just as the SFO was about to officially take up its duties in 1987.
Joining the Stock Exchange in its legal department, however, seemed to suit Wright very well at the time. She worked in the Securities Association that regulated stockbrokers, which eventually became the Securities and Futures Association.
‘I was doing disciplinary procedures against stockbrokers and dealers who had broken the rules, and some of them were pretty near to being out-and-out frauds,’ says Wright. ‘They weren’t dealt with in the criminal sense, but we could actually bar them from the market and fine them. That was a very satisfying period and I enjoyed working very much within regulation.’
She stayed there for 10 years before being headhunted for the position of director of the SFO in 1997 succeeding George Staple, who had looked after the body for the previous five years. ‘When I arrived at the SFO it had been a very bad period for it,’ admits Wright.
‘It had a spate of very bad, very high-profile cases and some of them hadn’t ended exactly as the SFO would have wished, Maxwell being one of the last. But as I arrived, it was just finishing off the BCCI case, which was a huge triumph for the SFO. It was a very morale-boosting event and it was quite fortuitous that I came in at that time.’
After this, things quietened down somewhat at the SFO and there were not as many high-profile cases to deal with. One of the biggest during her time, however, was that involving Peter Young and Morgan Grenfell Asset Management.
Young, and another three suspects, were alleged to have cost Morgan Grenfell £300m. There was a lengthy investigation but Young was never brought to trial.
Of the remaining three defendants, the case against one was stopped before it got to trial due to illness through leukaemia. Another was acquitted by the judge halfway through the trial while the last was acquitted by the jury.
‘I’m sure they (the jury) felt that one man shouldn’t carry the can for the rest of them,’ guesses Wright. ‘He was the most minor of the four of them. Although I felt we had a strong case, the jury obviously felt it was unfair.’
Despite this high-profile failure, there were plenty of smaller cases coming in, with most ending in conviction or guilty pleas.
It was the guilty pleas that pleased Wright the most as it meant the evidence against them was so strong that it would be foolish to try to fight against it.
While the high-profile cases may have been lacking in numbers, it certainly didn’t mean some of those coming in weren’t interesting. Perhaps one of the strangest and most quirky investigations involved ostrich farms.
‘It was a bit of a boom period and people didn’t know what to do with their money as banks weren’t offering very high rates of interest and the stock market took a dip,’ says Wright. ‘There was a big hype around ostriches because you could use all of the ostrich except its squawk.
‘You would be invited to invest in a breeding ostrich that was kept in another country. But in many cases there wasn’t an ostrich to sell or the same ostrich would be sold over and over again. We sent one of our senior chartered accountants off to Belgium, where this ostrich farm was, to count ostriches. He had to chase them round the farm not only to count them, which is difficult when these huge animals are running around, but also to sex them.’
Not a typical experience for an accountant perhaps but as Wright declares: ‘Accountants can be very versatile.’
Many of the SFO cases are brought outside of London and this is where Wright encountered one of the major issues to face her during her time as director.
‘One of the biggest problems I had was the diminishing numbers of police officers in fraud squads outside of London. It has really become an acute problem. There are very few police squads now dedicated to fraud and the ones that exist have decreased so much in size that they are practically non-viable.’
And the problem is scarcely better in the capital. ‘In the Met, the fraud squad has been rolled into a major crime unit, which means that if there is any other pressing criminal problem they will deploy fraud squad officers to investigate that. Once they are onto something like that it is very difficult to get them off if a fraud case comes up.’
This problem of getting the commitment from the police to take the issue of fraud seriously enough is accentuated by the way crime figures and targets are set.
‘It’s very expensive to investigate fraud and one case can take three or four years and if it’s successful, it only ends up as one cleared-up crime,’ says Wright. ‘If a drunk takes a car into a car park and hits 15 cars, that’s 15 cleared-up crimes. Now you tell me which one a police constable is going to put money behind.’
This was a huge frustration to Wright as trained police were needed for the SFO to function properly in the investigation of companies, raids, seizures and interviews.
One thing Wright was happy about was the quality of accountants she had at her disposal both within and outside the body.
‘The quality of accountancy in the SFO is first class and recruiting (former Levy Gee partner) Stephen Low as head of accountancy at the SFO was one of my major triumphs,’ says Wright. ‘Also, the quality of external accounting we brought in is top rate.’
After six years as the head of the SFO, and a one-year extension to her contract, she decided to move on from a job that she describes as ‘intense’. However, within two weeks she had been invited to head up the Fraud Advisory Panel at the ICAEW, once again succeeding George Staple.
It is one of the 13 jobs she is currently involved in, not all of them paid. As well as being a non-executive director at the Office of Fair Trading she is on the legal services board at the Department of Trade & Industry, is chairman of the employee bar committee of the bar council and vice-chairman of a charity that teaches business ethics to sixth-formers.
This won’t take away from her responsibilities at the FAP, however. Since taking up the role, Wright has been involved in the publishing of a report on identity fraud and advising companies to set up databases of suspected or known frauds.
‘The panel draws the public’s attention to rising trends in fraud and dangers to everybody, but it also raises awareness among professions and business of where they may be vulnerable to fraud, how to protect themselves and how to go about being taken seriously when reporting it to the police,’ she says.
With the release of new money laundering regulations on the horizon it will also be focusing its efforts on helping accountants and other businesses to come to terms with the new laws. ‘We lay on seminars for accountants through the ICAEW, workshops and booklets and a website to help them understand their responsibilities,’ says Wright.
‘It is a huge new area and one accountants have to be particularly careful about. Solicitors have had the first cut of this and they are already licking their wounds. It’s not going to be an easy transition for anybody but the FAP is there to help, inform and educate.’