Gangs exploiting Criminal Assets Bureau’s Achilles’ heel

Confiscating assets more difficult when criminals also have legitimate income

Members of the Criminal Assets Bureau and armed gardaí removing vehicles from a premises in Bluebell. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Members of the Criminal Assets Bureau and armed gardaí removing vehicles from a premises in Bluebell. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

The seizure of a fleet of luxury vehicles from known drug dealers on Wednesday, and from a car garage controlled by them, follows public comment that criminals were publicly flaunting their wealth once more.

The sight of flash cars being driven away by members of the Garda has the appearance of a decisive and popular blow against a particularly obnoxious crime cartel.

But the uncomfortable truth is that confiscating assets has become a much more complex business now than at any time since before the Criminal Assets Bureau was established.

Put simply, having seen for 20 years how the bureau operates, criminals have raised their game to try to frustrate the Cab.

In general terms, Cab officers identify suspect wealth and go before the High Court to make the case that, on the balance of probabilities, the assets represent the proceeds of crime.

If the court agrees, the bureau is at first granted an order, essentially freezing an asset. In time, and after any possible legal fight, further orders are granted enabling the bureau to take full ownership of an asset and finally to realise its value for the State.

In the early days of the bureau, when a target’s wealth was outlined to the High Court and the absence of any legitimate income to explain that wealth was set out, most cases were cut-and-dried.

Problems arose when a bureau target had some legitimate income – either from paid employment, a compensation claim, inheritance or some other windfall.

And in those cases, determining whether money or assets uncovered were legitimate or criminal incomes, or a mix of both, sometimes proved impossible.

Criminals saw how these cases stalled and sometimes failed. And they moved to exploit the Achilles’ heel in the system.

Fraudster

Christy Kinahan

While he runs a major drugs trafficking business, which supplies the Irish and UK markets, from Spain and is domiciled there, he has a number of men handling his Irish distribution and debt collection.

David Byrne (33), from Crumlin, who was shot dead on Friday, February 5th, at the Regency Hotel, Drumcondra, was among that group of Kinahan men based mainly in Dublin. And those targeted on Wednesday were Byrne’s closest associates.

Because some of those men run an ostensibly legitimate car sales business, which was also raided, it is much more difficult for the Cab to separate their legitimate income from their drug income during High Court asset-confiscation cases.

And the fact the men source luxury, barely used cars in the UK for sale here, frustrated the Cab even further.

Gardaí believe some of the vehicles they sell have been given to them as payment for drugs, though paperwork suggesting legitimate sales has been found by the Garda in the past.

When the vehicles are sold and the proceeds are run through the business, wealth is both generated and laundered at the same time, even allowing for taxes being paid.

Gardaí believe some of the vehicle transactions that take place at the company are above board in how the vehicles are bought and sold.

Those transactions are designed to further mire drug money into the fabric of a seemingly legitimate business.

The salaries taken from the business are run through the books, providing a documented income that can be used by the men to explain away assets – from houses to holidays, cash and jewellery – if and when the Cab comes to call.

Much has been written about some of the gang members driving around in new vehicles worth in some cases more than €100,000.

Well-placed sources have said when some of the top-of-the-range vehicles the men have been seen driving in recent years have been scrutinised, they have been found to be stock from the car garage.

Or vehicles are on loan to the criminals from contacts in the car trade in the UK.

In terms of the leadership of the gang, Christy Kinahan and those Irish criminals around him in Spain permanently reside there and are tax-domiciled there. They have all of their assets in Spain.

The orders granted to the Cab by the High Court in Dublin are not recognised abroad.

If criminals are domiciled in Ireland but have sought to lodge money in overseas accounts or have bought assets abroad, those assets can be confiscated by the Cab with the cooperation of the authorities in the relevant jurisdictions.

Assets abroad

Most European countries have opted for conviction-based asset-confiscations laws rather than the civil law ethos on which the Cab is founded.

It means that unless Irish criminals in, for example, Spain are convicted of drug dealing there, the wealth they have accrued via drug dealing cannot be touched.

However, Garda sources have said while asset confiscation is harder now and the criminals are always looking for ways to stay one step ahead of the Cab, most do not succeed.

The same sources pointed to the steady flow of Cab cases before the High Court as proof criminals are still being steadfastly pursued, even if that pursuit is getting ever-more complex.

They say operations such as those on Wednesday will become more common.

At the very least, they will force the criminals to step into the public arena that is the High Court and become embroiled in lengthy legal battles if they want to keep their wealth.