No place to hide
FBI to take on extensive role in SSL case
Finance minister Dr Nigel Clarke greets Financial Investigations Division (FID) Chief Technical Director Selvin Haye at the FID biennial conference held at Jamaica Pegasus Hotel on Wednesday. Looking on is minister of legal and constitutional affairs Marlene Malahoo Forte. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)

THE probe into the multi-billion-dollar fraud at investment firm Stocks and Securities Limited (SSL), which has left the nation shell-shocked, continues to grow tentacles.

Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke has advised that the involvement of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will extend beyond what was initially expected.

Last week he announced that the Government would engage the FBI in its quest to uncover all details of the more-than-a-decade-old theft and hold those responsible to account.

Speaking at the biennial conference of the Financial Investigations Division (FID) at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel on Wednesday, the finance minister said, "In the briefing that I have received, based on developments, the FBI is going to be intensifying their involvement even beyond what would have been thought when I first made that statement."

He also told the audience of local and international financial crimes experts and development partners that the Government has also now identified and is in the process of contracting an international forensics firm to assist in the investigations: "The Government is going to be paying for it. We are going to allocate the space in our budget to ensure that we can procure the best international forensics experts that we can find."

Furthermore, local cyber forensics resources have been activated to drill down into the details of the fraud. "There is going to be no place to hide," he stated.

At the same time, Dr Clarke frowned on the criticisms that have been levied at the Government in the matter, arguing that, "In the largest case of private sector corruption in the country, the conversation is about the Government. Let me tell you something, we are not going to be distracted by that. Directors and managers and persons responsible will have to provide an account for their stewardship."

He pointed out that at various points throughout the estimated 13-year period of the fraud, in the off-balance sheet book audits which the Financial Services Commission (FSC) directed up to January 2020, "everything matched" in relation to client liabilities and assets.

He said auditors and their processes will not escape scrutiny. "The regulators depend on third parties to provide external audits. If there is a direction to get an audit and the audit comes back satisfactory, the FSC cannot act on that point. There are questions as to why this wasn't detected by external auditors, by special auditors, and internal auditors over a long period of time," he asserted, pointing out that the intention is not to cast blame but to understand the weaknesses in the private sector that requires the Government to take action.

The finance minister said SSL shows the importance of the Government pursuing the agenda to strengthen the country's combating the financing of terrorism (CFT) and anti-money laundering (AML) framework.

"It is sometimes frustrating, tedious, we sometimes wonder why we have to go through all of this, but it is very clear to everyone today that it ultimately serves our collective interest. When there are questions about our regime here in Jamaica, the persons who are likely to suffer from such a reputation are the people who live and make their livelihoods here in Jamaica," he stated.

Dr Clarke said the case had shocked the nation not only because of the national significance of one of those allegedly defrauded, but also because of the scale and length of time of the theft. He pointed to sprint legend Usain Bolt, who is said to have been fleeced of some US$12 million.

"While he was winning gold medals for Jamaica in London, and we nationalised that victory and made it our own, there were people who were scheming and pilfering and stealing and thieving from his account. In 2016 when he repeated that illustrious achievement, this robbery was occurring," the minister stressed, describing the fraud as "a belly punch", an event of "earthquake, hurricane, natural disaster proportions," which the country will take some time to recover from.

The SSL board, in a release issued on Wednesday, denied attempting to wind up the company, in contravention of instructions from the FSC, and denied being aware of alleged fraudulent activities by a now former employee. The firm said the situation was being fuelled by sensational speculation, which tends to affect the overall investigation. Furthermore, SSL said, "A few bad apples, who do what fraudsters do — find ways to beat the system — should not cast doubt and suspicion on the many thousands who toil daily to preserve the integrity of the sector."

The FID conference is being held for the first time since 2018, under the theme 'Widening the use of POCA [Proceeds of Crime Act] through collaboration', with participation from local and international experts discussing topics such as racketeering, lottery scamming, inter-agency collaboration, Jamaica's national risk assessment, widening the use of the POCA across offences, cryptocurrency, tax evasion, and current challenges in real estate dealing and development.

BY ALPHEA SUMNER Senior staff reporter

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