NatWest Three cut a deal

After five years of dogged pursuit by the US authorities, and a highly controversial extradition treaty that prompted furious debate in the UK, the three ex-NatWest bankers accused of an Enron-related fraud are on the verge of taking a plea bargain that will see them serve a 37 month sentence, rather than the 35 years that they were originally facing. Was it really worth it?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The ‘NatWest Three’ were extradited to the US last year to face seven charges of wire fraud, which carried a maximum jail sentence of 35 years. Now they’ve taken a deal in which they plead guilty to one of the charges, pay back the money and serve less than a tenth of that – probably in the UK.

Gary Mulgrew, David Bermingham and Giles Darby were accused – all the way back in 2002 – of persuading their employer Greenwich NatWest to sell part of an Enron-owned business on the cheap, before leaving the bank, buying the stake, selling it back to Enron for a huge profit and pocketing the proceeds (in collusion with two ex-Enron employees).

But the real controversy came over their extradition to the US, confirmed last year after a two-year legal scrap. They were shipped across on the basis of US-UK treaty hastily cobbled together in 2003 to facilitate the extradition of terrorists, which appears to make it much easier for the US to extradite UK citizens than vice versa. Naturally the government has denied this, but nobody seems particularly convinced – after all, it wouldn’t be the first time that Tony Blair got the rough end of a deal with George Bush. In fact, even the US seemed surprised that we agreed to it. And it seems a bit ridiculous that the treaty was then used to extradite a trio of frightened bankers (whether or not they were up to no good).

Having spent five years piously proclaiming their innocence on all charges, today’s admission of guilt by the Three might seem to vindicate the US authorities. But three watered-down sentences seem like a poor return for five years of wrangling – and after being stuck in the US for 17 months away from their families, it would be no surprise if they decided to cut their losses rather than put their trust in the US legal system.

So it’s a fairly unsatisfactory solution all round. The plea bargain may have seemed like the lesser of two evils to the three men, but it hardly constitutes a victory – they’re still left facing an extended jail term, while they’ve also had to pay back all their ill-gotten gains. And as the UK’s most high-profile white collar criminals, you can’t imagine they’ll have too many head-hunters on the phone in 37 months’ time...

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