and just as effed-up as it often is here; but rarely on such a scale.
The police rolled through London in a convoy: scores of patrol cars, armed-response vehicles, outriders on their bikes, vans with their windows shielded by metal cages. With a Met film unit recording everything, detectives forced their way past startled security guards, demanding receptionists open the secure doors that led to the normally hushed strong rooms, which in the three centres housed 6,717 safety deposit boxes
There was a lot at stake. Never before had the British police been granted a warrant as broad as this. The raids had been made possible under a controversial law, the Proceeds Of Crime Act (POCA), which came into being in 2002 and introduced an array of wide-ranging new powers to seek out and confiscate dirty money - the houses, cars and boats bought by criminals.
However, lawyers watching the police operation unfold were quick to warn that the strong-arming of these vaults and the crashing into each and every box was tantamount to the police having obtained permission to smash down the doors of an entire housing estate.
David Sonn, of Sonn Macmillan Walker, one of the largest criminal defence practices in London, says, 'POCA was never intended for this. No one objects when criminals are caught and their assets seized - but shaking down everyone to get to them is specifically not what lawmakers wanted.'.
Big raid, lots of rehearsal, lots of evidence found. But there's a slight problem:
However, by talking to scores of box-holders, none of whom have spoken before, Live has uncovered a different version of Operation Rize, one that shows how the vast majority of those caught up in the raids were innocent. They have had their lives turned upside down over the past 17 months. Many have struggled to recoup their money and possessions, been forced into legal trench warfare with police lawyers and told they must prove how they came by the contents of their boxes.
This is also a story told through secret legal papers, including confidentiality agreements struck with some vault depositors whose cases threatened to topple the entire operation. Although the police told a judge that 'nine out of ten' of all of the thousands of box-holders were probably criminally minded, criminally connected or felons, the paper trail reveals that perhaps only as few as ten per cent of the boxes have any connection to serious crime.
Which is bad enough, but when you get further in, you run into the same mindset we run into over here:
Many of the clientele were families who had fled turmoil, pogroms, coups and wars and long had a cultural preference for locking away money and jewels, building up a vehement distrust for the integrity of traditional banks. Here, stepping down the spiral staircase at the back to the darkened boxes below, they felt reassured that their most important possessions were safe.
One survivor of Nazi Germany in his seventies told us how he had placed a bag of diamonds there - security if ever he or his descendents needed to run again.
A Hindu priest described to Live how his family's valuables had been carried in the Sixties from Madhya Pradesh, India, to London 'in a gunny sack'.
Among the possessions seized by the police were elaborate handcrafted bracelets, gold rings set with uncut stones, and a bejewelled wedding tikka ornament to be draped on the forehead of a new bride. 'These items had always been in our family,' the priest said, 'We had cash in there too. But now we had to prove how we bought them and where that money, saved over the years, had come from.'
There've been lots of horror stories over here about police seizing property and, if you could not prove it was 'innocent' they assume it's illegal profits/property and they keep it. Same thing here, and just as disgusting: how does someone prove that property that may have been in the family for years, or generations, is yours? How do you 'prove' to people convinced you're a crook that the cash you saved over years, sometimes decades, is honestly gained?
And it's not just money and valuables seized:
One angry box-holder rented Box 73 at the Park Lane depository. Alexander Temerko, formerly a vice president of Russian oil giant Yukos, whose billionaire boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky had fallen foul of President Putin, had fled to London as Khodorkovsky was jailed for eight years in Russia.
On his arrival in the UK, Temerko had locked five crates of legal documents into his safety-deposit box. However, as a result of Rize, the papers were now in the hands of the Met, which claimed they were evidence of an alleged criminal conspiracy whose participants were British, obliging the police to investigate.
Depending on your situation, records like that can be worth far more to you than money. This was one of the people who were able to hire serious legal assistance:
Montgomery and Burton highlighted case law that specifically stipulated 'fishing expeditions' were barred to the police, even under POCA. In other words, the police were not allowed to seize property in the hope that it would later prove to be criminal. The legal team also demanded sight of the police evidence that had convinced the judge to issue the warrant in the first place.
And here's where the story starts coming out in ways the Met had tried very hard to prevent:
The Met hired Kennedy Talbot, one of Britain's most experienced barristers dealing with POCA. Talbot approached a senior judge at Southwark Crown Court in November 2007. But Southwark rejected the request. The police application was also riddled with simple errors, according to the skeleton document, including a claim by undercover officers that there were 18,000 boxes, three times the actual number.
Police also named Leslie Sieff as a director, when available records showed that he had sold the majority of his shareholding as far back as 1998 and would soon resign as a director.
Having amended the number of safety-deposit boxes to a correct 6,717, and after admitting 'there is a lot we don't know', the police claimed to have found a shredded list behind one of the centres that when reconstituted revealed the identities of boxholders. SCD6 had analysed it and concluded that in a sample of 391 names between '82 per cent and 90 per cent were suspicious or connected to crime'.
A statistician was then hired who used this sample of only five per cent of the total client base to conclude that nine out of ten of all of the thousands of box-holders were probably criminally minded or felons, an opinion later expressed more stridently with Judge Macrae, who was told that 'all of the boxes might contain criminal property'. Macrae was swayed. He authorised a warrant under POCA on May 30 2008.
Minutes had been taken of the judge's meetings with Talbot and Ponting. They tell how the Rize plan had been rejected by one senior judge only to be put to a second who was wooed with statistics rather than hard new evidence. Other court documents obtained show that the legal teams preparing their judicial reviews took the 32-page transcript to pieces and in so doing lambasted the whole Rize operation.
'The warrant was extraordinarily broad,' Temerko's team warned, and 'completely unprecedented', representing the widest ever seen by lawyers in Britain, one that on this ground alone was liable to be quashed by High Court judges. The police had only provided the court with 'bare assertions' rather than hard evidence.
A High Court judge was advised, 'The gross interference in privacy outweighed any benefit to the investigation.'
And friggin' on:
Siobhan Egan from lawyers Lewis Nedas added: 'The police had also made some bizarre errors.' The POCA legislation barred the seizing of legal papers but they had five crates belonging to Temerko.
The police changed course. They notified Temerko's legal team that they were now acting under the Criminal Justice and Police Act, which allowed such privileged documents to be held.
'However, this law can only be invoked when a written notice has been given to everyone, box-holders and vault owners,' said Egan. Alerted, the police ran around serving the directors of the Park Lane vault and their box-holders with written notices - without realising that the law could not be applied retrospectively, and that the notice had to be handed over 'at the time' of the raids.
'Coverup after the fact', anyone? And it gets even worse.
Eight out of ten box owners were provably innocent. Taylor said: 'Of the £53 million in cash that the police took, £20 million has also been given back and £33 million is now being referred to as "under investigation", of which only £2.83 million has been confiscated or forfeited by the courts.'
This figure represents just over five per cent of the total money stored in the vaults, although the Met has 690 ' suspect' boxes that it is still investigating.
That means of the total number of boxes, around ten per cent are being probed for villainy, a long way from the nine out of ten cases the Met surmised they would find while wooing Judge Macrae.
Lawyers have seen their Rize cases squeezed and intimidated. Sara Teasdale revealed how the police were first adamant that her client's money was criminal cash, threatening forfeiture, only to try and turn the box-holder's business partner against him, enticing him to wear a wire so as to entrap him into admitting it was also money stolen from his own company.
Teasdale said: 'They first tried "wrong money". Then it was company money. Even when they dropped criminal proceedings against him in February 2009, they inexplicably continued with civil forfeiture proceedings.' The Yard was trying all it could to get the cash.
'They were sitting on almost £1 million, and having referred to my client anonymously in press releases as an example of why they had raided, they needed to win.'
But this case was recently lost by the Met too, leaving the box-holder with £200,000 in fees, money he is now seeking back from the police.
To make very bad even worse, the inevitable:
One goldsmith from north London fought for over a year to get his £40,000 cash and valuables back, then claimed it was not all there. He has now filed an official complaint.
'The police kept saying, "Why have you got all this cash?" and I showed them my books.'
His premises were raided twice, the second time by 20 officers.
'They found nothing because I had done nothing and eventually this summer, everything was returned to me. But £10,000 was gone - and my wife's diamond earrings.'
The Met has strenuously denied all allegations of theft, pointing out that anyone stealing from the boxes would have been caught on camera since officers videoed the entire operation.
Another box-holder who is alleging theft, a wealthy Russian émigré party-planner from north London, who had £64,000 in cash and £250,000 worth of jewellery, including heirlooms from Russia, successfully challenged the police to produce the video.
'I am meticulous,' she said. 'I have a receipt for everything. When I got my box back, £9,000 cash and some smaller items of jewellery were missing - a gold baby's bracelet and an 18-carat gold ring.'
The initial police footage, she claims, had a time code and showed her box being carried to a table. But then the tape was interrupted and when it restarted the footage was being shot from a new camera, at a different angle and without a time code, with real time having moved on many seconds.
She told Live: 'It only takes seconds for a small envelope of cash or a gold ring to be swiped from the table and into someone's pocket. I was staggered.' After failing to get adequate answers from the Met's own Directorate of Professional Standards, her lawyers have gone to the independent Police Complaints Authority, along with 70 other box-holders.
So now you've got either messed-up procedure on documenting the process, or deliberate gaps in the recordings. And accusations of missing property. With the Met still claiming it was an 'absolute success', of course. This part near the end points to the same mindset that leads to so many of the problems here:
Facing hefty fees for defending itself before two Judicial Reviews, being pursued for millions of pounds in legal fees by innocent box-holders, and now facing inquiries into theft, the political, judicial and financial costs of the operation are beginning to stack up.
And yet when it first kicked off, one of the things that had endeared Rize to everyone was its revenue-earning capacity, something revealed in a tucked-away minute of the Metropolitan Police Authority from September 2008.
Warning that the police were lagging behind in meeting targets set to seize criminals' assets, it stated: 'To achieve the target a further £36.6 million of assets need to be seized in the remaining nine months.' This was 'a challenging target'. However, 'with the emerging results from Operation Rize, the seizures are likely to make a major contribution toward the final total.'
Just effing wonderful. Deliberately setting targets of 'assets' to seize is a serious indication of trouble in the making, because if you aren't near your target, there's going to be real pressure to do things you probably shouldn't to meet the target. Which looks like was a big factor in this mess.
I'd suggest reading the whole article; it's worth the time. One thing that really surprise me was this line: Determined to clear their names, the Selts put up the £50,000 needed to launch their own Judicial Review that also focused on the lawfulness of the original warrant.
So not only do you have to find a way to prove your money and possessions are really yours, and legitimate, you have to come up with a serious amount of cash to get this type of review started. Which makes it even harder for you, and even easier for the government to keep your property; wonderful thing for official thieves, isn't it?