Billionaire Mining Moguls Fight SFO in $99 Million Trial
(Bloomberg) -- Billionaire mining tycoons said the U.K.’s fraud prosecutor’s desperation for a high-profile scalp made it a “willing” audience for their “bullying” lawyer accused of leaking confidential information and inciting a criminal probe that’s dragged on for almost a decade.
The 11-week London trial between Kazakh miner Eurasian Natural Resources Corp. and the Serious Fraud Office started Monday as the company seeks 70 million pounds ($99 million) from the prosecutor, and hundreds of millions more from its ex-lawyer Neil Gerrard for money it says it spent on legal fees for internal investigations and defense.
The High Court battle marks the beginning of the end of a near decade-long fight that’s involved several lawsuits and an eight-year criminal investigation. The probe, one of the SFO’s longest, is focused on allegations of fraud, bribery and corruption around the acquisition of substantial mineral assets. No charges have been brought. The mining firm, owned by billionaires Alexander Machkevitch, Patokh Chodiev and Alijan Ibragimov, denies any wrongdoing. Ibragimov died earlier this year.
ENRC accused Gerrard, then a lawyer at Dechert, of leaking confidential company information to both the SFO and the press in an attempt to expand the remit of an internal probe he was conducting in order to garner higher legal fees.
“This case centers around a former policeman turned high-flying white-collar crime solicitor, his reckless advice - and wholesale failures to advise - his remarkable modus operandi and Machiavellian conduct, and the stream of unlawful private dealings between him and his close contacts at the SFO,” ENRC’s lawyers said in court documents referring to Gerrard.
ENRC also accused Gerrard of being “motivated by greed” and “bullying” the firm into following his legal advice. Gerrard’s alleged leaking of confidential information was “nothing short of astonishing” and he “effectively invited the SFO to open a criminal investigation,” Nathan Pillow said in court Monday.
“We have vigorously denied the allegations made against us since they surfaced. We stand by the work we did and reject any suggestion that there was any unauthorized disclosure of information to the SFO,” a spokesperson for Dechert said.
ENRC declined to comment further. Gerrard and the SFO, who deny the accusations, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Dechert’s lawyers described the allegations as “an elaborate work of fiction, not to say fantasy.”
The case comes at difficult period in the SFO’s existence. The prosecutor has come under pressure for its failure to secure a high-profile conviction. It has struggled to prosecute individuals after securing settlements with companies. In recent weeks, it dropped its probe into former Airbus SE directors and was dealt a humiliating setback after its trial against two former Serco Group Plc directors fell apart.
“ENRC now regrets its choices and regrets sharing so much information with the SFO,” Simon Colton, the SFO’s lawyer, said in court documents. “Whether ENRC is justified or not in criticizing Dechert or Mr. Gerrard for their advice, that regret cannot support a claim for deliberate or reckless wrongdoing,” against the SFO’s director.
Gerrard has filed a counter-suit against ENRC and a private intelligence firm it hired to allegedly harass the lawyer and his wife. Gerrard said that operatives followed him on a holiday to a private island in St. Lucia, installed a motion-trigger camera monitoring his home near London and spied on him during a lunch meeting close to his office. ENRC denies breaking the law.
Shares of ENRC, once among the 100 most-valuable companies on the London Stock Exchange, plummeted after the SFO probe was announced in 2013. The owners took the firm private and moved its mines into a separate company called Eurasian Resources Group, which isn’t under investigation.
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