Three former NatWest bankers were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on Friday, after a federal judge approved a deal that they had negotiated with US prosecutors to reduce their expected prison terms drastically and accelerate their return to the UK.
David Bermingham, Giles Darby and Gary Mulgrew had struck the agreement in November to serve 37 months and pay $7.3m (£3.7m) in restitution to the Royal Bank of Scotland.
The sentencing marks the end of the furore provoked by the extradition of the men to the US in 2006, when the UK business elite argued that US authorities were able to take on alleged white-collar criminals without showing evidence.
The three became a British corporate cause célèbre, known as the “NatWest Three”, echoing language used to describe victims of famous miscarriages of justice, such as the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four.
But some observers felt the men had – at the very least – a case to answer. One semantic battle was whether the men should be known as the “NatWest Three’’ or the “Enron Three”, which would emphasise their involvement in the most notorious corporate corruption scandal of modern times.
The men had faced up to 35 years in prison if convicted on each of the seven counts of wire fraud related to the 2001 collapse of Enron on which they had been charged. The maximum sentence for even the single wire fraud charge to which they pleaded guilty was five years’ jail and a $250,000 fine.
Yet Ewing Werlein, a US district judge, said the sentence agreed with prosecutors was appropriate. The men had accepted responsibility in a statement for “the significant lapse of judgment” that resulted in the charges.
“I’d like to apologise to the people who’ve been hurt by my decisions: my family, my friends and my ex-colleagues,” Mr Mulgrew told the court. The plea agreement provides assurances US prosecutors will help the men in applications to serve much of their sentences in the UK.
Since the men agreed in November to plead guilty, business leaders who had campaigned for them have been notable by their silence on the case.
Initially, the bankers pleaded innocent to seven counts of wire fraud for allegedly participating in a scheme with Andrew Fastow, Enron’s then chief financial officer, to defraud Enron of $20m. But there is pressure in the US judicial system to enter into a plea bargain to eliminate risks of prolonged sentences.
British authorities are examining plea bargaining in reform of the way authorities deal with fraud, following criticisms that convictions are too few and punishments often light.
Lisa Osofsky, a former US prosecutor now advising Control Risks, the security company, said the sentencing was a “ringing endorsement” of the US justice system. “The plea-bargaining system encouraged the co-conspirators to spill their guts, and made it difficult for the three to maintain their innocence,” she said. “It would be good to see British courts follow the US plea-bargaining model and enable us to learn more of insiders’ involvement in complicated crimes.”