White-collar crime: All bark, no bite

The ODCE returned almost half of its annual budget, unspent, to the Exchequer last year. Should we be impressed?

Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Frances Fitzgerald TD at a Government announcment on measures to enhance the State’s corporate and regulatory framework. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Frances Fitzgerald TD at a Government announcment on measures to enhance the State’s corporate and regulatory framework. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

In spite of scandals involving white-collar crime and abuses of power by financial and other bodies, a reluctance remains to take aggressive remedial action. Measures announced this month – following the mistreatment of mortgage holders and complaints from the Council of Europe and the OECD about our anti-corruption legislation – lacked bite. Their description by Fianna Fáil’s Niall Collins as “just a tired rehash of previously announced plans and failed legislation” may be harsh, but it reflects an underlying reality.

In recent decades, various tribunals have exposed fraud and corruption within the planning, business and political systems, but to little obvious effect. Politicians and others were publicly disgraced. Findings were referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions. But most of those implicated denied everything and carried on. The Mahon tribunal sat for 15 years. It made findings of corruption against former ministers, TDs and councillors and described a taoiseach’s explanation of his financial affairs as “untruthful”. It recommended anti-corruption measures in 2012, eight of which may now be enacted. That gestation period reflects the political appetite for reform.

Public outrage over the way in which mortgage holders were overcharged by financial institutions prompted this latest activity. The proposed legislation also responds to international complaints about our inadequate anti-corruption legislation. Tough talk about replacing the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) with a properly funded and staffed white-collar criminal investigation agency dribbled away to piecemeal reform. Bank directors were cautioned they might be penalised if abused customers did not receive early and adequate restitution. Rogue auditors and accountants were threatened with greater supervision. And digital evidence may be allowed in court cases.

Don’t expect speedy changes. The ODCE returned almost half of its annual budget, unspent, to the Exchequer last year. Should we be impressed?

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