Police warn lawyers not to let mob's crimes pay
POLICE have made Scotland’s ‘mafia’ lawyers an offer they can’t refuse: stop handling your clients’ dirty money and we won’t send you to jail.
Detectives say a small number of Scottish lawyers are too close to the gangsters they regularly defend in court and are effectively helping them launder the proceeds of crime.
Officers last night warned that any lawyer who refused to pass on what they knew about the financial affairs of criminal clients would be prosecuted and could face up to 14 years in jail.
Police have also warned that action will be taken against members of any profession which turns a blind eye to criminals spending their money, including accountants, estate agents and car dealers. The move is part of a major crackdown on the proceeds of crime heralded by a new law which comes into force at the end of March. It will make it much easier for police to seize the assets of convicted criminals.
But a senior officer, who asked not to be named, says the police will not stop at gangsters. The new law requires lawyers to alert police if they suspect they are being asked to handle the proceeds of crime.
The source says: "There are certain solicitors used by the criminal fraternity. They obviously think they are immune to prosecution, but this new legislation will change that.
"We can force these people to let us know who’s spending what and what they are buying. If we get to know and he hasn’t told us, then he’s facing a criminal charge."
The officer added: "Criminals have to go through certain individuals to buy property and those individuals have a responsibility to let us know they are using them to launder their money."
Lawyers have already been jailed in Scotland after crossing the line. In 1997, solicitor James McIntyre was given three years for having guns at his Linlithgow home which he was reportedly holding for a crime family.
But leading defence lawyers were last night scathing about the threat. Joe Beltrami, one of Scotland’s most respected criminal lawyers, says he doubts the existence of anything like mafia lawyers in Scotland.
"I don’t think lawyers would be so stupid to sacrifice their career for what you are speaking about and I certainly hope I’m right."
John Scott, a prominent defence lawyer who is also chairman of the Scottish Human Rights Centre’s executive committee, suggests some police "may be watching too much Sopranos".
Scott says police already have sufficient powers to deal with "bent solicitors".
He adds: "If there is a solicitor who has crossed the line and has behaved inappropriately, he should be struck off and possibly jailed."
And he warns that the Proceeds of Crime Act gives far too much power to the police and is open to abuse.
"If they don’t like what I’m saying about them, they could target me. My job is to defend people accused of crimes. It’s easy for them to say they have received an anonymous phone call and come into my office and take my money off me."
Last year, Scottish courts seized 2m from convicted criminals. The new law is expected to cause that amount to rocket.
Police will have extra powers to confiscate cash, bank accounts, bonds, cars, homes and other property belonging to criminals. It also allows detectives to require banks and other financial institutions to investigate suspicious accounts.
A new unit at the Crown Office is being launched tomorrow by the Justice Minister, Jim Wallace, to take civil court action against criminals even when there is not enough proof to get a criminal prosecution. A civil court, where cases are settled on "the balance of probabilities" rather than "beyond reasonable doubt" could order the seizure of assets deemed to be the product of crime.
Under part of the act which came into force in December, officers can seize cash sums of more than 10,000 if they merely suspect it is connected to a crime. The owner of the money then has to convince a sheriff the money is legitimate.
Detective Chief Inspector David Marsh, of Strathclyde Police, says: " Apart from obvious criminals, we will also be looking very closely at those people who act on their behalf within the financial sector.
"Criminals will find it difficult to hide assets abroad. It’s simply no longer viable. We will know where their money is going, what they are buying and how their money is being laundered."
Detective Chief Inspector Peter Ritchie, of Lothian and Borders Police, says his force is already planning an operation against a specific criminal target which will "attack their assets".
"This is one of the most radical pieces of legislation for our type of work on organised crime in my service and I’ve been a detective for 25 years.
"There are people who historically we would really have liked to take on, but they were so far removed, we couldn’t get near them.
"This is changing and there is now the opportunity to do that without any shadow of a doubt."
THE wealth accumulated by Scottish criminals has soared in the past 25 years thanks mainly to the lucrative drugs trade. The country’s ‘Mr Bigs’ are thought to have amassed fortunes of several million pounds each, while even second league crooks can save hundreds of thousands of pounds, according to the police.
In the Irish Republic, laws to target criminals’ finances were introduced in 1996 and seizures went from virtually zero to more than 6m a year. The authorities there have also been able to recover vast sums in unpaid tax.
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