Private companies are racing to fill a vacuum in white-collar crime investigation left by cash-strapped law enforcement agencies, according to a former top UK police officer who has joined the controversial corporate intelligence firm Black Cube.
Adrian Leppard, who joined Black Cube’s advisory board in December, told the Financial Times that a surge in cyber fraud in recent years had not been matched by an increase in police resources.
“No new police resources were ever made available to investigate it. And as a result of which, only one in 500 frauds are actually prosecuted now,” he said in an interview, referencing an estimate based on official figures reported last year. “So there’s absolutely a business need for private investigation.”
The comments are a rare acknowledgment by a former top police officer that some fraud in the UK is going unpunished, after years of policing budget cuts since the financial crisis.
Central funding for police forces was reduced as part of a long-running austerity programme, though last year the government said it would increase budgets and recruit more officers.
It’s quite lawful to deceive people if you’re doing it for the greater good
The retrenchment has spurred demand for the services of private intelligence companies — many based in London’s Mayfair — and for private prosecutions, which allow companies and wealthy individuals to pursue criminal cases in British courts.
The extent of the industry’s reach into business, national security and politics was underscored recently when Boris Johnson recruited his new chief of staff, Dan Rosenfield, from Hakluyt, a London-based private intelligence company founded by former MI6 officers.
Companies such as Black Cube are hired by wealthy individuals and companies, often in the context of litigation, to investigate rivals and adversaries. Founded in 2011 by veterans of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, Black Cube has been among the most prominent and controversial of such firms, in large part because of its work for Harvey Weinstein.
Lawyers for the disgraced movie mogul hired the firm in 2016 as he sought to counter allegations about sexual assaults he committed. The effort ultimately failed but The New Yorker in 2017 reported that Black Cube operatives had surveilled reporters who were investigating Weinstein and spied on actor Rose McGowan as she prepared to speak out about the abuse she suffered. Weinstein was convicted of sex crimes in 2020 and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Leppard, who retired from the police in 2016, said the company had withdrawn from the contract when it realised allegations against Weinstein were genuine, and has since instituted “a very comprehensive code of ethics”. He said Black Cube would not take on a client such as Weinstein today, noting that his role included the right to veto potential new Black Cube clients as well as providing operational advice.
Other clients of Black Cube have included Beny Steinmetz, a Franco-Israeli billionaire who was found guilty of bribery in the acquisition of African mining rights in a Swiss court last month. Steinmetz has said he will appeal.
Leppard said Steinmetz was a “historic” client of Black Cube.
In the past, Black Cube was also retained by ENRC, a mining house controlled by Central Asian oligarchs. It was once among the most valuable companies listed in London but is now fighting a long-running investigation by the UK Serious Fraud Office. ENRC denies any wrongdoing.
While declining to discuss specific cases, Leppard, who was commissioner of the City of London Police until 2015 and was awarded a CBE for services to policing, defended the use of deception and undercover surveillance as necessary tactics.
“It’s quite lawful to deceive people if you’re doing it for the greater good,” he said, pointing to what he called the successes among Black Cube’s 350 cases, such as its role in revealing corruption in Mexican oil industry.
Leppard said that under Black Cube’s new ethics rules, the firm would not take on cases involving sexual harassment, or clients who were violent criminals. He said the firm complied with the law in every country where it operated and no longer used offensive cyber techniques such as computer hacking.
In 2016, Black Cube operatives in Romania hacked email accounts belonging to associates of Laura Codruta Kovesi, an anti-corruption prosecutor who was fired in 2018 and subsequently appointed the first European Union-wide Chief Prosecutor.
Leppard said his understanding was that Black Cube had believed it was working for Romanian intelligence. He added that the operation predated Black Cube’s adoption of a code of ethics that prohibits hacking. “To my knowledge the company is keeping to this statement vigorously,” he said.He would not rule out that Black Cube would investigate journalists, only that it was “extremely unlikely” that the company would do so. “I think you have to look at each case and what you’re seeking to achieve, what’s the greater good of what you’re seeking to achieve,” he said.