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Ireland's 'unfit' corporate watchdog is about to get a major overhaul

The ODCE was roundly criticised for its role in the collapse of the case against Sean FitzPatrick.

Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

IRELAND’S CORPORATE WATCHDOG is about to be overhauled in an effort to make it more effective in pursuing white-collar crime.

The government today announced a range of measures it is planning to take in an effort to combat corporate wrongdoing.

Among the most eye-catching is a pledge to revamp the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE), which came in for harsh criticism after the collapse of the case against former Anglo Irish Bank chairman Sean FitzPatrick.

It was found that the ODCE staff had destroyed evidence and coached witnesses during its investigation. Jobs Minister Frances Fitzgerald, who was formerly justice minister, said that the ODCE was “not fit for purpose” after the case fell apart.

Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald there are ongoing discussions with the Attorney General about the review into the ODCE and its role in the FitzPatrick trial.

As part of the overhaul, the ODCE will be made an independent agency rather than a state agency with the aim of giving the organisation more autonomy and flexibility in how it operates.

The government also promised that the body will be better able to recruit expert workers. This has long proved an issue for the ODCE, which was recently said to be suffering from “dangerously low staffing levels”.

fitzpatrick Former Anglo chair Sean Fitzpatrick (centre) Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

The changes to the ODCE will need legislation in order to ”facilitate a transition to a more adaptable and specialised company law enforcement entity with responsibility for company law enforcement”, a government report said.

The minister said the new agency announced today will be similar to that of the Revenue and the Consumer Protection Agency, stating that there were will be a chief commissioner and two other commissioner heading up the new body.

Under the Companies Act 2014, the agency already has a number of powers, said the minister, though she said the government would not rule out beefing up their powers if that is needed.

“You have to stay very alert with changes in this area, and keep up with international best practice,” she added.

Payments fraud

As well as the ODCE change, a new agency task force will be established to address payment fraud, such as credit card fraud, which is being increasingly carried out by sophisticated criminal enterprises.

The new task force will operate for six months and its findings will feed into a Department of Justice review of anti-fraud and anti-corruption structures and procedures.

Other measures that were announced include new laws that will make it easier to prosecute insider trading, rules to targets lobbyists who may attempt to bribe influential figures and a crackdown on money laundering.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said will incorporate some of the recommendations following the Mahon Tribunal, with new laws clamping down on bribes and “kick backs” with penalties of up to 10 years in prison, and unlimited fines.

Other legislative changes in the Criminal Procedures Bill will allow for pre-jury trial hearings, and reduce the timeframe for white-collar crime cases.

He said juries are given a whole raft of complex evidence in the forms of transcripts, graphs, recordings, account summaries in a more accessible format which he said will ensure that jurors have a better understanding of complicated corporate cases brought to trial.

Ireland is also signing up to a common reporting system, whereby if someone is attempting to hide a particular asset in another country in order to avoid their tax liability, the Revenue will automatically be permitted to share information with other tax authorities in other countries.

Despite the ministers stating that a whole of government approach was being taken against white collar crime, there was no mention of a new anti-corruption agency being established.

The idea, first put forward by the Social Democrats, was mooted during the Fine Gael leadership contest when Simon Coveney suggested a new anti-corruption agency could be set up, which would also probe politicians and judges.

He said officials would be prosecuted if found guilty of corruption or misuse of power in office and civil servants would also be answerable to such an agency.

Varadkar pushed aside such an idea, stating that there was a dedicated section in this area in the ODCE and the garda fraud bureau.

The soon to be Taoiseach said at the time that there was “enormous and understandable anger” among citizens on the white collar crime issue , adding: “We need to see white collar crime in Ireland treated in the same way as the United States.”

Varadkar has also criticised the performance of the ODCE, stating:

“I don’t think they are performing to the level we would expect” and joked if criminals Do confess they only speak “to priests, not to the authorities.”

He added that he is “frustrated at our inability as a country to secure more convictions when it comes to corruption and white-collar crime”.

“Corruption and white-collar crime damage our economy, breed cynicism in our society and are a threat to our international reputation.”

With reporting by Christina Finn. Written by Paul O’Donoghue and posted on Fora.ie 

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