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Dublin: 10 °C Monday 20 October, 2014

Column: There IS white collar crime here – it’s just that no-one is jailed for it

This week, regular TheJournal.ie columnist Nick Leeson says that Ireland technically doesn’t have white collar crime – but only because no-one is being properly punished for bad business actions.

Nick Leeson

A NUMBER OF people have remarked to me in recent weeks that: “There is no white collar crime in Ireland”.

That’s a rather startling statement from what I would consider very serious business people. But the statement as it reads is not exactly what they mean.

They are more than aware that there is white collar crime in this country but it is rare – if ever – that you hear of a prosecution. So a swift look at the convictions statistics would suggest that there is little, if any white collar crime.

We all know the case to be very different. There is an abundance of instances – but very little appetite to prosecute. We can all speculate on the reasons, and none of them reflect well on this country, but the fact that the statement has any credibility at all is very worrying. It has many damaging consequences.

Crime, of any sort, needs to be punished. That is why as a society we have laws and why, in businesses, there are standards and operating procedures that must be adhered to. More often than not the two sets of guidelines cross over.

But what is most important is that everyone is aware of the laws and the internal regulations. Throwaway comments from business people such as the one that I mentioned at the beginning of this column actually suggest that a certain amount of white collar crime is ‘okay’.

It reminds me of my own situation many years ago when I chose to cross the line between right and wrong. I didn’t necessarily associate my actions at the time with a fraud – but that is what it was. I certainly didn’t view it as criminal as I entered the first trade into the illegal 88888 account but with hindsight there is no doubt that it was.

The problem was that I had seen it happen so many times in the past, and carried out by many people. Typically, an error would stay in an error account for hours, a day at the outside, and then be resolved. In my case, the error account fast became the most active and most aggressive account that the company owned. Even then, I’d seen error accounts in operation so many times in the past that I actually gave it very little thought. Yes, I was nervous but the immediate intention was to unwind the position as quickly as I could.

I’d seen it happen so many times in the past and thought I could successfully do the same. Of course, I was wrong.

Awareness of the consequences of your actions is extremely important. That is why the law is so clear and precise. Equally, that is why the operating procedures of a company are so clearly defined and conveyed to their employees.

My name has recently surfaced in a number of media reports. A so-called Chinese rogue trader was recently tried in a court in Wenzhou, East China. Wang Caipang is said to have defrauded investors of $15.9 million; borrowed for the stated purposes of buying equipment and property. Instead Caipang is said to have the used the borrowed funds to speculate in the futures and gold markets. Her success rate was not dissimilar to my own, the least being the bulk of the money lost. She was found guilty and sentenced to death.

“I doubt there are many people suggesting that there is no white-collar crime in China after last week’s verdict”

The likelihood is that she will serve two years in prison and then the sentence will be commuted to life in prison. Either way the sentence is harsh but there is one thing that it most certainly is – and that is a deterrent. I doubt there are many people suggesting that there is no white-collar crime in China or that there is no light punishment for such crime in China.

Now I’m not in favour of the punishment handed out by the Chinese authorities but if you are aware of the consequences and you still decide to commit the crime, then you have nobody else to blame. The People’s Republic of China executes the highest number of people annually although other countries, such as Iran and Singapore, have higher per capita execution rates.

I have no real way of proving it but I would like to think that if I had been cognisant of the consequences to my actions, I would have put a halt to them far sooner. I wasn’t aware of the personal consequences. I lost four and a half years of my life to a prison in Singapore and whilst I can appreciate that my actions were criminal from inception it was never quite so clear when it became a crime. That may sound strange but that is why awareness is so important and why certain behaviours cannot be tolerated.

In my case I had become so used to seeing errors in error accounts for short periods of time that it almost became the norm. In Ireland it is time for some strong messages – to say that there is white collar crime and that it is way past the due date to see some punishment meted out. When I’m back in the same circles again, I’d love to hear that something has changed, that white collar crime is not tolerated and neither are people so dismissive of it.

If all else fails, send them to China?

Read previous columns by Nick Leeson>

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