As a criminal defense attorney, I have often heard law enforcement agencies say their robbery investigation strategy is to “follow the money”. In the wake of the Northern Bank robbery of 20 December 2004 — at over the equivalent of $50 million dollars, one of the largest bank robberies of all time — the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) claims the money leads to the IRA and Sinn Fein. PSNI publicly has even specifically named Sinn Fein leaders such as Gerry Adams as being responsible for the brazen theft, even though after three months of crack detective work, the money trail PSNI supposedly followed to Adam’s door remains mysteriously elusive.
A long pattern of corporate wrongdoing and a string of evidence available from even a cursory glance at public information sources suggests PSNI would do well to consider other theories — including the possibility of an inside job. Following the money, in this case, raises a spectrum of suspects pointing in a far different direction from PSNI’s swift declaration that it simply “knows” who is responsible.
NATIONAL IRISH BANK: FRAUD AND THEFT
In the late 1990’s, the Irish Parliament debated the fate of the National Irish Bank, the corporate sister to Northern Bank. National Irish had been caught by Irish regulatory agencies engaging in a pattern of long term, widespread consumer rip-offs since its corporate inception in 1988. Committee reports from the Oireachtas refer to it as “scandal on a monumental scale” and “fraud and theft on a wide and pervasive scale”. www.historical-debates.oireachtas.ie, 26 March 1998.
In April 1998, Ireland created “flying squads” of accountants and inspectors to investigate Irish banks. www.managementconsultancy.co.us/news/51903. This was primarily to try to regain public confidence in Ireland’s banks, which had suffered from the ongoing reports of fraud. Oireachtas representatives noted that many Irish citizens were just beginning to have enough faith in banking to remove their money from cookie jars and open an account; widespread banking scandal could have a devastating effect on the burgeoning Celtic Tiger economy.
Scandal creates opportunity, and in this case, it was an opportunity for savvy bank-buyers. Taking advantage of the upheaval, National Australia Bank Group (NABG) added National Irish Bank and its Northern Ireland affiliate, Northern Bank, to its roster of small banking entities. Northern Bank and National Irish were, until mid-February 2005, sister branches of the National Australia Bank Group; Northern Bank has 95 branch offices in Northern Ireland plus 13 business banking centers. It is the top Northern Ireland business bank, and sports an offshore banking division.
Don Price, a former executive for BP oil, was named to head both Irish banks after the former Chief Executive quit when his family was kidnapped. Mr. Price took over amidst massive investigations regarding both Irish banks. He had no prior banking experience, but had been a newspaper executive after BP — a career he attributed, in reported media profiles at the time of his appointment, to teaching him critical media skills and the ability to work on fast deadlines without taking the time to agonize over decisions.
ROGUE FOREIGN CURRENCY TRADERS
In 2004, NABG was rocked with a foreign currency trading scandal. Three “rogue foreign exchange traders” in Sydney and one in London did them out of what APRA found to be A$360 million. These four traders, named and their acts described in detail at www.thaistocks.com/currency-trading.htm in an article by Kavaljit Singh, were not quite as “rogue” as NABG press statements may have liked. Investigators revealed a culture of corruption and risk taking with lax corporate controls, and clear knowledge of the trader’s actions up the chain of management. Seventy five steps of improvement were recommended including improvement of the state of their held assets.
Meanwhile, National Irish Bank was still up to its old tricks. An investigative report commissioned by the Irish government’s regulatory agencies, overseen by the Irish High Court, and done by Price Waterhouse Cooper revealed widespread high-level incompetency and corruption. According to the High Court judgement statement, Price Waterhouse’s report “detailed a culture where management abrogated responsibility and sought to suppress bad news”. The Irish High Court ruled on 23 July 2004 that National Irish Bank must make amends to the tune of 64 million euros for fraudulent customer charges and tax evasion, as well as the cost of the investigation. www.odce.ie/-fileupload/court/NIB_Order.pdf. Price Waterhouse was ordered by the court to maintain all the documentation of the scandal for a period of three years. 1998 No. 89 COS and 1998 No. 132 COS. After that, the documentation will be destroyed.
In the judgement, the court noted that 28.7 million euros had already been paid out. Www.odce.ie/_fileupload/court/NIB_judgement.pdf. That left 37.3 million Euros yet to be paid on the judgement as of that date.
NABG sought to jettison National Irish Bank and Northern Bank. In the wake of their currency trading scandal, the National Irish investigation and judgement were not helping to improve NABG’s held assets or their reputation. On December 14th, 2004, NABG and Danske signed an agreement for the purchase of the two banks for 1.6 million pounds — 937 million Euros. This was inexplicably less than the 1.7 million pounds — 1 billion Euros — which Irish Life and Permanent, Ireland’s largest life insurance group, stated in contemporaneous media reports that it was willing to offer for the banks. According to the Danske press statement regarding the agreement, the terms of the purchase included warranties and indemnity provisions for risks including liabilities arising in connection with the High Court investigation. www.danskebank.com
On December 20th 2004, Northern Bank was robbed of 26.5 million GBP in bank notes and pound sterling. This is the equivalent of 38.6 million euros, or A$50.6 million. The theft was in cash from their Belfast office. (This raises an interesting question as to why a bank of this size was holding 38.6 million euros in cash in any of their 112 Northern Ireland locations. That’s a lot of cash on hand for a single branch of a relatively small regional bank.)
The figure reported in the media as having been stolen varies widely over the first several days after the robbery. CNN and BBC reported varying figures, with CNN and other news agencies possibly confusing their reportage of various cash denominations (in other words, reporting Euros or Pounds stolen as Dollars). The first figure which appears in the day or two after the robbery that appears to be an officially released figure from the bank and/or PSNI is 22 million GBP.
On December 22, 2004, CNN reported that “Police believe the robbers may have had inside information,” and Russian news agencies stated that Mr. Ward, the bank employee whose kidnapping had launched the heist, stated “The robbers had detailed knowledge of the bank’s security procedures…”. www.newsfromrussia.com
Various news agencies reported that most of the money stolen was in Northern Bank notes, with the rest in sterling printed by other Northern Ireland banks. This would likely make it difficult to shift these funds out of the region without drawing undue attention. Northern Bank and National Australian bank stated in their press releases shortly after the robbery that they were uninsured and will have to cover the losses themselves.
“WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE”
Don Price, CEO of both Northern Bank and National Irish, did not make a public statement regarding the December 20th robbery until January 7, 2005. In response to questions regarding the change in figure, Price made what can be construed as a wildly defensive statement to the press — “I have done nothing wrong. We are the victims in this. We are not the ones responsible for the raid.” He also stated — spontaneously and vehemently — that he would not be resigning over the robbery.
In Don Price’s January 7th press statement, he also stated that Northern Bank would be shortly withdrawing all their banknotes and replacing them with notes from a different series. Mr. Price noted that this was an unusual move, but stated that he had experience in doing this, given that Northern Bank’s sister institution, National Irish Bank, had recently pulled all its banknotes to switch to Euros.
There would seem to me to be an obvious logic, if not a necessity, in pulling one type of currency to trade it for another when the currency of the jurisdiction has changed, as in National Irish Bank’s switch to the Euro — a process that was no doubt engaged in by banks throughout the European Union at about the same time. But I can not see an equal logic in trading in old small denomination bills for new ones in different colors, but of the same currency. Mr. Price admitted in statements to the press that the change in bank notes will not make any difference in the ability of the robbers to move the old notes, and that it will cost a reasonable-sized fortune — 5 million Euros — to undertake the change.
On the day of the robbery, media-reported market records such as Yahoo finance indicate that Danske stock took a steep plunge, with their trades going up precipitously at the same time in an anomalous spike. The same media-reported market records also indicate that NABG stock also took a temporary plunge on the same date — but with no related spike in trades. There did not appear to be a rush to buy and sell NABG stock in the wake of the robbery. In other words, the robbery did not appear to generate a notable market reaction in NABG shareholders.
Oddly enough, according to public market reports such as the charts available on Yahoo finance, on December 31st, 2004, NABG reports a single-day event of the trade of over a thousand shares of their Mexican subsidiary, traded as NABN.MX. However, the corporate information on the NABG website makes no mention the existence of a Mexican branch; and searches on several internet search engines did not reveal any indication of a Mexican NAB affiliate. The NAB website, www.nabgroup.com, lists three regional branches — Australia, UK/Europe, and New Zealand. The individual banks in these groups are listed. In the public market reports, the Mexican branch of NABG exists on one day only, December 31, 2004. On that day, the reported trade is well over a thousand shares; an order of magnitude over their usual 100 share daily trades indicated on the NYSE.
By mid February 2005, Danske received the go-ahead from the EU’s monopoly watchdog panel to buy Northern Bank and National Irish Bank. On February 28th, 2005, NABG announced that it completed its sale of the two Irish banks for A$2.5 billion, generating a profit on sale of A$1.1 billion, as agreed in early December 2004.
Danske reports that the offending personnel have been removed; that they plan to cut costs by 15% on the two banks; and that bringing the two banks into their technology group will resolve such problems in the future while allowing them to tap into the great Irish economy. Given Danske’s positive record in the banking industry, there is every reason to believe that Danske’s purchase will turn these two banks around and resolve their ongoing regulatory violations.
Public press releases from Danske and Northern Bank indicate that CEO Don Price will stay on as executive of Northern and National Irish banks. The Irish Bank Officials Association expressed their profound relief at the completion of the sale, noting that the very existence and future of these two banks had been in doubt. www.iboa.ie. Based on the near-audible sigh of relief expressed in the banker’s association response to the sale, it seems that Mr. Price’s future, and the future of these two corporations, apparently had stood on the edge of a knife, dependent on resolving the High Court investigation and on making the sale to Danske go through.
UP IN SMOKE
The media, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and even government officials in England and Ireland have publicly stated — without presenting their supporting evidence — that the IRA has committed this bank robbery, with Sinn Fein and its leaders in full complicity. This review of the publicly available information regarding the corporate practices history of Northern Bank, its corporate sister National Irish Bank, and their former parent corporation, the National Australian Bank Group, together with publicly reported information immediately after the robbery indicating that the robbers had inside information, coupled with remarkable coincidences such as the quantity of money being removed in the robbery (38.6 million Euros) closely matching the amount of fines ordered to be paid (37.3 million Euros) , and the mysterious NABG Mexican trade in late December, indicates that PSNI should not be leaping to such hasty allegations.
“Following the Money” of the Northern Bank robbery leads to a tangled web that may well point in a number of directions other than Sinn Fein and the IRA. With the Northern Ireland peace process run aground in the wake of unsupported public allegations, it would behoove PSNI to make a full, thorough assessment of the total evidence surrounding this robbery before pointing any more fingers or bringing charges. In its rush to name the usual suspects and slam Irish Republicans, PSNI has overlooked any number of other theories which might arise from asking the question of who benefits from the Northern Bank robbery (surely not Sinn Fein, who has persistently urged patience and reliance on factual evidence in this case, all the while watching their decades of efforts flounder and their popularity ratings plunge). The publicly available information regarding the corporate environment of fraud and corruption suggests only one such theory worthy of further serious investigation; there may well be other theories presented if one had access to such evidence as PSNI could uncover if it had a mind to.
PSNI’s failure to turn its investigative forces towards pursuing explanations other than blaming the IRA and Gerry Adams demonstrates the profound political, rather than policing, nature of this flawed organization. Three months after the robbery which PSNI instantly stated it knew who had performed, no one has been arrested, no charges brought, no money recovered. As Northern Bank removes all its current bank notes in mid-March for burning, replacing them with new notes of different colors and serial numbers, PSNI sits and watches as both opportunity for bringing the bank robbers to justice — and the Northern Ireland Peace Process — go up in smoke. In failing to investigate and analyze other theories of this robbery before publicly declaiming the IRA, Sinn Fein, and Gerry Adams with the same unfounded broad brush, PSNI has done all who favor the cause of peace and civil rights in Northern Ireland a grave disservice, and the institution of policing more harm than good.
CINDY ELLEN HILL is a criminal defense lawyer in Vermont. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org