Here's something you don't see every day: 100 executives in suits and ties assembling for a protest march. But there they were in London's financial district, furious if subdued, at a rally in late June to protest a treaty between the U.S. and Britain. Their beef? They're convinced that the treaty, first trumpeted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a way to speed the extradition of terrorism suspects, has been unfairly used against British executives.
The rally came two weeks ahead of the planned July 13 extradition of a trio of former bankers known as the NatWest Three. U.S. prosecutors claim they conspired with Enron executives to defraud their employer, British bank NatWest, of $7.3 million by investing in an Enron offshore partnership. They face legal fees of more than $2 million each and, if convicted, up to 35 years in a Texas jail. If the U.S. Justice Dept. has its way, they will be the first in a long line of white-collar suspects to be sent unwillingly across the Atlantic. Since Britain ratified the treaty in 2004, the U.S. has requested the extradition of 24 Brits wanted for white-collar crimes, but only three who were accused of terrorism.
Few would argue there's anything wrong with going after crooks, white-collar or otherwise. But as Britain Inc. sees it, the treaty has been exploited by an overzealous Justice Dept. In a letter to the British government in early July, GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK ) Chairman Christopher Gent, London Stock Exchange Chairman Chris Gibson-Smith, and retail billionaire Philip Green, among others, wrote that the U.S. is using the treaty "not to capture bombers, but to bring to trial in America British businessmen."
The situation is fast becoming a major political embarrassment for Blair. For starters, only Britain is subject to the requirements of the treaty because the U.S. has yet to ratify it. On July 12, Parliament held an emergency debate on the issue. Hoping to defuse anger at home, London decided to dispatch Home Office Minister Patricia Scotland to Washington to urge the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has scheduled hearings on the treaty for July 19, and key senators are pushing for ratification this year.
"UNEVEN PLAYING FIELD"
Even if the Senate approves the pact, the treaty will still be unfair, say legal experts in London. They argue that the burden of proof required by U.S. authorities to order an extradition is much lower than what London must provide Washington to get its hands on an American. The U.S., for instance, can extradite British citizens with only a "hearsay affidavit," a sworn statement from a prosecutor making allegations, rather than detailed evidence. To extradite a U.S. citizen, Britain must provide evidence of probable cause that will stand up in a U.S. court. "It's a very uneven playing field," says Digby Jones, former director general of the Confederation of British Industry.
Britain and the U.S. dispute that assessment. Both sides say the treaty brings the U.S. in line with agreements Britain already has with Canada and Australia. In a July 12 interview with BBC radio, the U.S. ambassador in London, Robert Tuttle, said the evidence required to extradite is "roughly the same" for both countries.
That's scant comfort to Ian Norris, the retired CEO of British engineering group Morgan Crucible. The Justice Dept. alleges that Norris conspired to fix prices of carbon products in the 1990s but has provided London only with sworn allegations, not hard evidence. What's more, though a crime in the U.S., price-fixing was not illegal in Britain at the time. Alistair Graham, Norris' attorney, says the case "will test just how far the new extradition regime can be stretched."
Make no mistake, the Justice Dept. is playing hardball. Nigel Potter, the 59-year-old former chief executive of British gambling company Wembley PLC, found that out the hard way when he flew to the U.S. in an attempt to clear his name on bribery charges. He was soon convicted and is now serving a three-year term in a Pennsylvania jail. Says his wife, Joanna: "His only crime was being naive."
By Kerry Capell, with Eamon Javers in Washington