Ex-Barclays bankers cleared over Qatar fees in blow to UK fraud office

LONDON (Reuters) – Three former Barclays (BARC.L) executives were acquitted in London on Friday of charges they helped funnel 322 million pounds ($418 million) in secret fees to Qatar during the credit crisis, in return for rescue funding.

In a blow to the UK’s taxpayer-funded Serious Fraud Office (SFO), which prosecuted the case, a jury cleared Roger Jenkins, Tom Kalaris, and Richard Boath of fraud.

The men, aged between 61 and 64, all denied any wrongdoing. Qatar, which is still a significant Barclays shareholder, was neither investigated nor accused of wrongdoing.

The verdict draws a line under an ambitious, seven-and-a-half year inquiry that led to the first criminal charges in Britain against senior financiers at a major bank over conduct during the credit crisis.

It also marks the likely end of efforts by prosecutors to hold top bankers to account for decisions taken when the global financial system was brought to its knees, forcing taxpayers into bank bailouts totaling hundreds of billions of pounds.

The SFO filed charges a month after the ruling Conservative Party pledged to abolish the investigator and prosecutor and roll it into a national crime-fighting force in 2017.

Standing outside London’s Old Bailey in the pouring rain, Boath called the SFO’s case a “complete invention” and pointed out that a regulatory investigation had exonerated him a year ago. Asked what he would do now, he said: “I’m going for lunch.”

“Our prosecution decisions are always based on the evidence that is available, and we are determined to bring perpetrators of serious financial crime to justice. Wherever our evidential and public interest tests are met, we will always endeavor to bring this before a court,” the SFO said after the verdict.

The SFO’s prosecution has been beset by setbacks. The most senior defendant, former CEO John Varley, was acquitted last June and its case against Barclays itself, which also centered on alleged unlawful financial assistance to Qatar through a $3 billion loan in 2008, was dismissed in 2018.

“The SFO’s failure to secure any convictions in this important and high profile case raises serious questions about the agency’s treatment of individuals in these matters,” said Ross Dixon, a partner at Hickman & Rose solicitors, who was not involved in the trial.

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SECRET PAYMENTS

The case turned on two undisclosed payments made by Barclays to gas and oil-rich Qatar during a two-part, 11 billion pound emergency fundraising in June and October 2008 that allowed the bank to avert a state bailout.

Prosecutors had alleged Middle East investment bank head Jenkins, Kalaris, who ran Barclays’ wealth unit, and former financial institutions head Boath conspired with former finance director Chris Lucas to disguise a 42 million pound payment to Qatar.

The SFO said the bankers used an advisory services agreement (ASA) to mask the fact Barclays was paying Qatar more than twice the fees it was paying other investors that June.

Jenkins, described as the “gatekeeper” to the Qatari relationship, was also charged over the bank’s 280 million pound, five-year ASA struck with Qatar four months later.

The men said the ASAs were intended as genuine mechanisms to pay Qatar what it wanted while extracting lucrative, commercial business from Qatar, that such side deals were common in banking, that senior directors had authorized the parameters of negotiations and, along with lawyers, had approved the deals.

A lawyer for Lucas, who was not charged because he was too ill to stand trial, has declined to comment.

NERVOUS NELLIE

Much of the prosecution case was built from recorded conversations on the telephone line of Boath, nicknamed “Nervous Nellie” by his counsel.

Boath fretted the June ASA looked “dodgy”, that it could be seen as a “bung” and said he felt sick at the thought of having to demonstrate to authorities that Qatar had provided services, transcripts of conversations and SFO interviews showed.

Defense lawyers said Boath had not fully grasped that Sheikh Hamad — the former CEO of the Qatari sovereign wealth fund — could provide Barclays with lucrative, commercial business opportunities by simply opening his rolodex.

Jenkins told the jury that Sheikh Hamad would have been insulted if he had been asked to spell out his promises, but that he had believed “with a passion” in the ASAs.

After a heart attack in early August 2008, Jenkins said he was ordered back to work a month later to help save Barclays as markets roiled in the crisis. He left the bank in 2009.

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