Thursday 19 July 2018

Case for the prosecution: misconduct chief leads crackdown on bankers

Derville Rowland was appointed director general of financial conduct at the Central Bank last September
Derville Rowland was appointed director general of financial conduct at the Central Bank last September

Dearbhail McDonald Group Business Editor

Derville Rowland's first jury trial as a junior barrister in London was defending an alleged car thief.

Her client was acquitted. Accused by the prosecution of being the driver of the stolen car, Rowland's client was, in fact, the passenger.

It was Rowland's first win and the formative experience opened the young lawyer's eyes to the intricate realm of legal proofs and loopholes.

Now the Mayo native is the director general of financial conduct at the Central Bank, responsible for the supervision of more than 10,000 firms including Ireland's persistently errant banks - reeling from a €1bn tracker mortgage scandal that has decimated public trust in financial institutions.

The white-collar lawyer is responsible for overseeing consumer protection, securities and markets supervision and enforcement at the Central Bank whose own role in the tracker and wider consumer protection scandals has not escaped scrutiny - or criticism.

Earlier this week, an Oireachtas committee recommended that the Central Bank should be stripped of its responsibility to protect insurance customers because it creates a conflict of interest in its mandate.

The cross-party Business Committee said that the government should "examine the feasibility" of transferring the bank's consumer protection role in the insurance sector to another body.

The Central Bank faced similar calls to be stripped of its consumer protection role after an initial, lacklustre investigation of the tracker mortgage scandal, now - save the prospect of enforcement proceedings, including potential criminal prosecutions - drawing to an unedifying close.

By any stretch, the tracker controversy is the biggest overcharging scandal in the history of the State.

In December 2016, Central Bank governor Philip Lane said 10,000 mortgage holders would have their tracker mortgages restored and secure compensation.

Now, it is close to 40,000 customers. This quantum leap in tracker victims comes after a painstaking review of two million mortgages and threats by Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe last year that he would veto the appointment of banks' board members, hike the bank levy, stymie discussions on lifting the €500,000 salary cap and otherwise hold bankers personally responsible unless they lived up to their commitments on tracker mortgages.

The tracker investigation is the largest piece of supervisory work ever undertaken by the Central Bank which is now housed in the salubrious North Wall Quay HQ in Dublin's Docklands that was meant to be the home of the now defunct Anglo Irish Bank, the bête noire of Irish banking whose former CEO, David Drumm, is now languishing behind bars.

Rowland, who was appointed director of financial conduct last September, says she understands the public contempt towards the banks, but insists "enormous progress" has been made to redress victims and place manners on the banks.

"People in Ireland aren't just trustful of the banks, I don't blame them [customers]" says Rowland who adds that the lack of trust in banks is a global and not just a local phenomenon.

Since the onset of the financial crisis, €270bn worth of fines and penalties have been levelled on financial institutions on a worldwide basis with seemingly never-ending mis-selling and payment protection scandals including the London Libor scandal.

It was partly in response to the public revulsion against banking misconduct that the Central Bank created a dedicated financial misconduct pillar last year that Rowland now leads.

Rowland defends the response to the tracker scandal by the Central Bank which, as we meet, is running enforcement actions against six major banks.

"They are really detailed, forensic examinations, where we acquire email drives, huge amounts of data, where we interview present and former employees of the businesses, to get a full evidential picture," says Rowland.

I ask my namesake if that includes board members. Rowland doesn't say that it does, but she doesn't rule the prospect out either, stating that "all the relevant people" will be interviewed, if necessary, raising the tantalising prospect that board members could be hauled over the proverbial coals.

Significant, if belated progress has been made on the tracker scandal.

In the last three months alone, banks - which have set aside almost €1bn to deal with redress and costs - have paid an additional €98m in redress and compensation to consumers with some €557.3m paid to date.

More than 60pc of customers received payments up to the value of €10,000; 29pc received up to €50,000, 6pc of offers were between €50,000 and €100,000 while 2pc of affected customers received in excess of €100,000.

The average redress and compensation paid to date in respect of loss of ownership of principal dwelling homes is roughly €133,000 and the average for buy-to-lets is €148,000.

BTL's are typically higher because of the greater amounts of monies borrowed.

I ask Rowland whether, in light of continuous controversies, whether the banks are ungovernable - a veritable law unto themselves.

But Rowland, who (with the Central Bank) supports the introduction of a new crime of "egregious recklessness" to engender greater accountability in financial services, says cultural change can be effected through a combination of intrusive regulation and compliance, coupled with a rebuilding of trust and cultural reform fostered by businesses themselves.

Next week the Central Bank will give the Government details of behaviour and culture assessments of each of Ireland's five main lenders.

The culture review was supported by the Dutch Central Bank and will determine if the banks face fresh "mitigating" actions particularly around high-risk products that may impact on consumers.

For Rowland, there are green shoots on the road to cultural recovery.

"Outside of trackers, in the last four years €164m has been paid back to customers. Around €89m of that was because the Central Bank got on to the firms and made that happen. The rest of it was firms self-identifying their own problems and fixing it themselves."

Consumer-focused culture change won't happen overnight, she concedes.

"It's less of a New Year's Eve resolution and more of a lifestyle change," says Rowland who is responsible for the regulation of more than 10,000 firms, involving millions of transactions.

"We're a systemic regulator, we can't stand on the shoulders of every transaction. Mistakes will happen, but what you expect to see is firms to come out quickly, completely and fairly to deal with them - so that people trust them".

IN another life, Derville Rowland might have been a journalist.

But after qualifying as a barrister in London, she moved on from prosecuting and defending petty crimes to advanced frauds including VAT and benefit frauds before migrating to the world of representing - and prosecuting - a range of professionals including police officers, lawyers and accountants.

She later became the overall head of professional conduct for the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), the global body for professional accountants, before deciding to move back home to Ireland in 2004. Rowland had intended to practice as a barrister in the law library here, but didn't feel there was a home at that point in Ireland for her regulatory specialism in general - and her white collar crime experience in particular.

When she started in enforcement, there were less than 20 staff. Now there are 105, not including those working in the regulator's anti-money laundering division.

As director of enforcement, Rowland was responsible for investigations and enforcement of issues across all regulated sectors and she led complex investigations into a range of controversies including the former Anglo Irish Bank, the now defunct Quinn Insurance Limited and the former Irish Nationwide Building Society.

Public confidence in the administration of justice has whipsawed after a decade of investigations and prosecutions - culminating in the recent jailing of former Anglo boss David Drumm - that has produced mixed results in our criminal law courts. "White collar crime is difficult to prosecute, it's different," admits Rowland who says the Central Bank's commitment to bringing enforcement cases - more than 116 to date - is "unquestioned".

Most regulators and white-collar investigators are drained after a decade of chasing the banks, but Rowland - who has been tipped to become a future Governor of the Central Bank - is wholly revived by the challenge of ensuring banks behave and act in the interests of their consumers.

Only time will tell if the banks are truly transforming or whether they will play roulette with the public interest once again.

Irish Independent

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