We’re far too soft on white-collar crime

Today we describe the case of self-confessed fraudster Breifne O’Brien who, over 15 years, cheated relatives, friends and friends of friends. He used his privileged position — an affluent family, raised in a castle, private schools followed by Trinity — to swindle millions from others in his haute bourgeois milieu.

He and his wife — they have separated — led a lavish lifestyle which included an Aston Martin, a villa in Barbados and regular visits to the world’s only seven-star hotel, the Burj Al Arab in Dubai.

After O’Brien admitted he could not repay investors — including a brother-in-law — his wife sought a court order to free some of his assets so she might get €4,000 a week for living expenses. She withdrew the application when the court refused to hear it in private. The trappings of this pathetic story are more or less as they would be in any greed-driven soap opera but what makes this one pertinent is not the behaviour O’Brien but the response of Ireland’s justice system.

O’Brien’s schemes were uncovered in December 2008 as was American swindler Bernie Madoff’s billion-dollar ponzi racket. Though completely different in scale the same principles and inter-personal trusts were broken. This May morning, Madoff is serving the second year of the 150-year sentence imposed on him, caged, wearing a khaki jumpsuit in the federal correctional complex in Butner, North Carolina.

Despite the fact that it’s three years since Ireland’s Commercial Court granted various applications and orders against O’Brien he remains a free man — if a person burdened by a High Court order to repay €13m plus interest and costs can be so described. Though O’Brien is not unique this delay seems inordinate. But then we have form in this area.

The delays surrounding investigations into the collapse of our banking system nearly four years ago are inordinate. Several cabinet ministers have expressed concern — could they not do more? — at this increasingly suspicious delay. Other voices have suggested there are no provisions in our law in this instance to confront reckless, amoral bankers, their accountants and auditors. If that is the case we are in a very sorry place, exposed to the next irrational, insatiable generation of bankers to control the banks deemed too big to fail.

In three weeks’ time we will be asked to vote on a constitutional amendment that seems essential to buttress the very system that dragged us to a point where we are utterly dependent on the conditional kindness of strangers. A system that has yet to face the kind of hard-nosed regulation that would make a four-year investigation unnecessary.

One of the sub-texts to a lot of the opposition to the EU fiscal treaty is the very real fear that the kind of laws needed to constrain those who might again destroy our economy and undermine our society are not even on the drawing board. Surely the mandate for reform granted at the last election demands that laws to aggressively confront white-collar crime be on the statute books within the life of this Government? If that process was running parallel to the campaign to secure a yes vote on May 31 it would make endorsement far more likely.

Though O’Brien and Madoff are not connected with the EU treaty, they are, to the great majority of more-or-less powerless workers and citizens, opposite sides of the same coin. The fiscal treaty will impose discipline on governments and economies but we urgently need to expand our definition of white-collar crime to impose discipline on those who, if left unchecked, will provoke the next bank collapse.


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