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Further uncertainty for SFO as agency appoints COO as caretaker chief

In a move unlikely to inspire, the perennially-embattled Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has appointed Mark Thompson, its chief operating officer (COO), as its new director on an interim basis.

Thompson, who will take up the post on 21 April, replaces outgoing director David Green QC, who has held the position since 2012. In an SFO press release, Thompson said: ‘The search for a new director has been successful, although the individual cannot take up the post immediately. In the meantime, it’s important that the SFO pursues its cases with vigour and discharges its legal and corporate obligations responsibly. My role will be to ensure we continue to do this, and to ensure a smooth transition when the new director arrives.’

The obvious conclusion is that the permanent replacement will be brought in externally, which confounds the widely-held prediction that Alun Milford, the general counsel of the SFO, would ascend to the role.

Thompson has been with the agency since 2004, heading its proceeds of crime team between 2012 and 2016. He began his career as a police officer with the Metropolitan force before in 1997 qualifying as an accountant and working for the National Audit Office and KPMG.

The interim appointment will do little to address the uncertainty hanging over the prosecution agency, which was under threat of being absorbed into the National Crime Agency (NCA) in 2017. Green’s tenure was viewed as having improved the agency’s reputation as a credible force in addressing white collar crime but controversy was never far away.

Alison Geary, a counsel at WilmerHale, commented: ‘This announcement sparks more questions than it answers. It is difficult to tell where this new candidate is coming from, why their name cannot be revealed or how long it will be before they are in place. The SFO is, once again, left in limbo.’

Stephen Parkinson, head of criminal litigation at Kingsley Napley, who has previously been in contention for the director role, told Legal Business: ‘It’s very odd that even now we do not know the name of the next director of the SFO. And it sounds like we are not going to get an answer for some time, which is extremely disappointing because it has been known for years when David Green would be retiring.

‘I do not know Mark Thompson, but he is an accountant and therefore does not have the experience required to make prosecution decisions. Not only does he not have the experience, he will not have the inclination to make decisions in the big cases because that’s something the permanent appointee will want to make. We are heading towards a period of time where nothing much will happen at the SFO.’

The outgoing Green is likely to be the next ex-prosecutor on law firms’ wishlists, after Linklaters announced last week that Alison Saunders, the UK’s director of public prosecutions, will join the City giant later this year.

For more analysis on the SFO’s prospects see ‘Under the sword’ (£)