Thursday 23 January 2020

Brazil empowers its prosecutors to fight white-collar crime - in Ireland, we get another toothless inquiry

Former Olympian Derval O’Rourke branded the allegations of ticket-touting as ‘disgusting'
Former Olympian Derval O’Rourke branded the allegations of ticket-touting as ‘disgusting'
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Lawyers will be the only ones to benefit from yet another toothless inquiry into allegations of corruption among Ireland's elite.

'Keep calm, carry on and remember to have a retired judge on speed-dial', seems to be the modus operandi of Ireland's political class whenever the plebs kick up a fuss about perennial controversies in this country.

True to form, within 48 hours of former Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) President Pat Hickey's ignominious arrest in Brazil, embattled Sports Minister Shane Ross was solemnly announcing the creation of a non-statutory inquiry into the scandal. So, an inquiry that cannot compel witnesses, seize documents, obtain confidential information from financial institutions or force witnesses to answer questions is the best the Government can do when attempting to investigate allegations of ticket-touting at the Olympics.

All of the main players embroiled in the controversy - THG, Pro10 Management and the OCI - have vowed to co-operate with the inquiry and that seems to have satisfied the minister, for now.

However, it remains to be seen just how comprehensive this co-operation will be when companies are asked to open their books up to scrutiny by the inquiry.

Meanwhile, Brazil, where corruption is supposed to be endemic, has been teaching the Irish a thing or two about how allegations of white-collar crime should be investigated.

Despite its economy being in freefall, its fraud squad has been properly resourced and empowered to go after allegations of criminality, no matter where those investigations may lead them.

This is a relatively new phenomenon in Brazil, where white-collar criminals formerly acted with impunity. However, a mammoth investigation into bribery and corruption at a State-run oil company, Petrobras, in 2014 changed all of that. Operation Car Wash, named in honour of where much of the money was laundered, has resulted in more than 50 arrests and the seizure of billions of dollars.

Prosecutors in that case went after high-profile public officials with such fervour that they earned the moniker 'cavaleiros do apocalipse' (horsemen of the apocalypse). Their determination to get to the bottom of the scandal was such that they even sought permission to dig up one suspect's body after rumours he had faked his own death to escape them.

Allegations that well-heeled businessmen sold Olympic tickets at inflated prices may not be in the same league as a multi-billion dollar financial scandal, but the Brazilian police appear to have treated the allegations with the same degree of seriousness.

Which is just as well, because before Mr Hickey's arrest, it seemed that Irish politicians viewed the entire affair as little more than a minor distraction, best handled by the OCI internally.

The fact that families of Irish athletes were disgracefully forced to source Olympic tickets on the black market didn't seem to trouble anyone. It was left to former Olympian Derval O'Rourke to properly describe the allegations as "disgusting" after she pointed out poorly paid athletes seem to be held to a higher standard of accountability than globe-trotting administrators.

Cutting through all the waffle coming from Government Buildings, Ms O'Rourke's analysis was simple: There's one law for the little guy and another for the elites in this country.

Visit any district court in the morning and you will find petty criminals being prosecuted for a plethora of minor offences. It's unlikely you'll find anyone in a pin-stripe suit facing white-collar charges among their number.

The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) is the State's main watchdog when it comes to investigating allegations of white-collar crime and, incredibly, it was operating without any in-house accountants for 15 months between February 2015 and May this year.

This was even after its director, Ian Drennan, publicly stated in 2014, when it employed just one forensic accountant, that it needed at least five more to be "credible". While notional permission to hire additional staff was eventually given the following year, its sole accountant actually transferred out of the office and it was left without any accountants at all until recently.

To make matters worse, a vacancy for a computer specialist has been open for nearly two years, while two senior investigator positions also need to be filled.

Perhaps this staffing deficit explains why the ODCE prosecuted just three people in the district court last year, with no proceedings at all launched in the circuit court.

While the Brazilians wisely beefed up their white-collar crime unit in the midst of their financial crisis, we did the opposite. Following a banking collapse that nearly destroyed the country, the agencies tasked with trying to prevent another financial catastrophe have been starved of resources. The failure to properly pursue white-collar criminals is not the fault of the people in the ODCE, or the Garda fraud squad, who are diligently doing their jobs despite their difficult working conditions.

It is the fault of a public appointment service that can't seem to cut through the red tape and prioritise the recruitment of essential staff in critical agencies, and a Government that doesn't seem to care about presiding over a trading environment that has been likened to the Wild West.

Now, we have the laughable assurance from junior minister Patrick O'Donovan that ticket-touting will be made illegal here. Really? And who exactly will be tasked with enforcing that law, and with what resources?

Will members of the Garda fraud squad, already unable to cope with their current workload, be expected to start trawling the internet looking for people making a quick buck on their Adele tickets?

Instead of enacting laws that have no hope of being enforced, or setting up expensive inquiries that draft reports which are ignored, why doesn't the Government react to this latest scandal in a novel way - by doing something constructive to help anti-fraud agencies investigate crime. Alternatively, maybe we can outsource all of our anti-corruption investigations to the Brazilians.

Irish Independent

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