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‘An impressive background’: high hopes for new SFO director but naming delay criticised

The two-month delay in naming the new Serious Fraud Office (SFO) director has been labelled flabbergasting, embarrassing and unsettling by some white-collar partners but there is confidence in the appointment.

Former FBI deputy general counsel (GC) Lisa Osofsky was this week (4 June) named the SFO’s new chief, bringing to an end months of speculation after the prosecution agency said in April it had found a new director, while refusing to name the successful candidate.

Osofsky was widely rumoured the successor to previous director David Green QC and will join the SFO on 3 September from compliance and risk group Exiger. She will take over from interim director Mark Thompson, who will return to his permanent role as the SFO’s chief operating officer.

White & Case white collar head Jonathan Pickworth told Legal Business the timing of Osofsky’s appointment compared unfavourably to David Green, who was announced SFO director four months before he took office in April 2012. Pickworth believes the candidate search had not even begun by then this time around.

He commented: ‘After the general election set-back, the government put the whole thing on the back burner and focussed on other priorities. As a result, and through no fault of the SFO, the appointment process was started too late and we ended up with this embarrassing period where no-one knew what was happening.’

Keystone Law white-collar specialist Claire Shaw reiterated these concerns to Legal Business, saying she was ‘absolutely flabbergasted’ by the delays.

‘I have seen two or three changes in director. It’s usually very clear who is in the running, it’s pretty much well-known. But for this I didn’t see anything like it. If you are working at the SFO and you know you don’t have a strong person taking over straight away it just makes you feel demoralised. I found it quite extraordinary.’

Shaw added she was pleased by the appointment, however: ‘I am very impressed that they have gone for someone from an anti-money laundering background. I hope she’s given the clout and the backing to lead the SFO effectively.’

The American Osofsky has a very strong CV. Aside from Exiger and her tenure at the FBI, she served as a special attorney in the fraud section of the criminal division of the Department of Justice (DoJ).

Robert Amaee, white-collar partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, said: ‘There’s little doubt that Lisa’s appointment cements the continuing strengthening of the relationship between the SFO and the US white-collar law enforcement agencies. We are certain to see more SFO enforcement in coordination and cooperation with its US counterparts.’

Osofsky has also won supporters after she recently insisted in an interview with the Financial Times that she wanted the SFO to remain independent. A Conservative Party manifesto pledge last year to combine the SFO with the National Crime Agency (NCA) had previously sparked criticism from white collar experts, although the plans have since been scrapped.

Amaee said: ‘She’s been unambiguous in her support of an SFO, independent from but closely coordinated with the NCA – that could herald quite a powerful combination of intelligence and expertise.’

One of Osofsky’s immediate priorities will be to continue pursuing Barclays, after an investigation into a $3bn loan made to Qatari investors at the height of the financial crisis was dismissed by a UK court in May. White-collar sources said the SFO may apply to the High Court for a voluntary bill of indictment, essentially a recommencing of proceedings under slightly different charges, to prolong the probe.