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The Investigation of Ethical Investments and Fraud

SFOThe Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is the UK’s investigative and prosecuting body for dealing with cases of serious fraud and bribery. Owing to the increasing complexity with which fraudsters operate, the SFO employs sophisticated means to investigate suspicious activity. It recently featured in the press, with its criminal investigation into an “Ethical” Investment Company.

What is being investigated?

In March this year, the SFO announced that it had opened a criminal investigation into the dealings of two companies, Global Forestry Investment and Global Forex Investments, and their potentially fraudulent activity. Both companies are headed up by the same people: business partners Mr Andrew Skeene and Mr Omario Bowers, who founded their company GFI Consultants Ltd in April 2010. Following the creation of their consulting company, both gentlemen invited potential clients to a business event where they would give potential investors greater insight into available investment opportunities. Investors were given information regarding an allegedly lucrative investment project in Brazil, the Global Forestry Investments Belem Sky Plantation. The Plantation was described as having huge potential and which could grant a return of up to 20% to investors, through investing in sustainable forestry.

The project was described by Mr Skeene and Mr Bowers as allowing investors to “participate in an ethical and financially rewarding investment.” The investment was presented in the following manner: investors were to lease a plot of land on the timber plantation in Brazil. The value of their investment and the return they could expect was to be based on the trees growing on the land. The project used specialist timber management companies who would then lease the plots from the investors and manage the land on their behalf. The minimum investment was £5,000 with no upper limit. It was claimed that the Rental fees, which were to be £500 per 0.1 hectare plot per year, depending on the timber management company that the investor had chosen. This was to bring about a 10% return, with more to come in the following years. The interesting point to note is that in their literature, GFI Consultants Ltd did highlight (in the small print at the back of their brochure of investment information):

“GFI Consultants Ltd is not regulated by the FSA and is not authorised to offer advice to the general public concerning regulated or unregulated investments. This is not an authorised investment for the purpose of the UK FMSA (2000) and as such buyers have no access to statutory or regulatory protections including the Financial Ombudsman Service and the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.”

In order to give effect to the investment, the land that the investors were to invest in was supposed to be held “in beneficial ownership for the investor” by an organisation called Title Trustees International, a subsidiary of a company called Hutchinson & Co. Trust Company Limited. Hamilton & Co. Trust Company Limited also had another subsidiary, Citadel Trustees which in 2014, changed its name to Highport Trustees.

In what was already becoming a complicated situation, another organisation entered the picture. Emerald Knights, sold the plots of land on the Belem Sky Plantation to the investors and it claimed to investors that Citadel Trustees was regulated by the FSA, even though Global Forestry Investments was not. Investors soon noticed that the investment quickly stopped making payments. In 2013 GFI claimed that this was due to “a cumulate of various factors”, citing severe weather, and a series of banking and logistical issues caused by the regulatory framework in Brazil. In early 2014 GFI claimed that the administrative issues had been resolved. However this did not appease investors who are reported to have lost over £4 million via Global Forestry Investments.

What is the SFO concerned with?

The SFO is concerned that there has been some criminal activity in the alleged ‘ethical’ investment that was being proposed by Global Forestry Investments Ltd, namely Fraud. The law of Fraud is set out in the Fraud Act 2006. The Act defines fraud as: a) The making of a false representation; b) By failing to disclose information if you are under a duty to do so; or c) By abusing the position which you are expected to safeguard. In respect of the activities of Global Forestry Investments, Global Forex Investments and Mr Bowers and Mr Skeene, the SFO will be looking for evidence of Investment Fraud, in that:

  1. They knowingly gave investors information regarding the investment that they knew to be false e.g. the likely return on their investment that they could expect;
  2. They failed to bring to investors’ attention that they knew would have an impact on their decision making; or
  3. In some other way, abusing their position as advisors on potential investments.

The investigation is still ongoing, and has already resulted in the searches on at least two properties in England. If there is any evidence of fraudulent activity, the SFO is entitled to bring both civil and criminal prosecutions against the perpetrators. A civil prosecution by the SFO can result in a substantial fine being issued, while a successful criminal prosecution could result in an individual being imprisoned for up to ten years.

The law of Fraud is very complex, and can be difficult to understand. It effectively looks to guard against any kind of deception that could result in either personal gain or loss to another party. The SFO has developed a very sophisticated structure to investigate cases of alleged fraudulent activity of both individuals and organisations.

Contact Lewis Nedas

At Lewis Nedas we have an expert team of financial crime lawyers, who are regularly involved in a helping clients deal with SFO and other regulatory investigations. We have many years of experience in the field, and work in partnership with our clients to ensure that they are fully advised on the law and how it affects them. If you have any concerns regarding the law on Fraud, or are perhaps concerned about how you or your organisation would be affected by an investigation, please contact us now. We are here to help.

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