One of the most common requests I have from people commissioning my training is for case studies – stories about money launderers. And I am more than happy to oblige, as researching these creatures is one of the guilty pleasures of my life. Take yesterday, for instance, when this headline flashed across my screen: “Mexico’s anti-money laundering chief resigns amid scandal”. Well, who could resist? Turns out it might not be anything to do with money laundering – the head of Mexico’s FIU got married and on the private plane he hired to take “influential guests” to his wedding in Guatemala there was also a bag containing US$35,000 in cash, which was apparently correctly declared and intended to be spent on medical treatment in the US. (But I have questions: how can the head of an FIU afford private planes, why does he have “influential guests”, and do doctors in the US really accept bags of cash?)
However, I think it is important to get the message across to staff – who are, after all, your front-line defence – that money laundering is not always, indeed not usually, as fun and glamorous as this. Most money laundering is dull, pedestrian and unambitious. As an example, I often tell the story of Ian Woodall, who worked for Westminster Council as an interim chief investment officer. Between January 2009 and December 2012 he stole £924,841 from the council by tricking colleagues – who trusted his advice – into signing off on payments from their billion-pound pension fund by telling them that he was making investments. And in a way he was: he was investing in his own house and car and – morally interesting, this – he paid off his tax bill at HMRC. The laundering came about because Woodall transferred the money from his UK bank account to accounts he had opened for this purpose in Switzerland. The theft was uncovered in September 2013 when an audit into the council discovered almost £1 million had been “unlawfully removed”, and in January 2019 Woodall was jailed for seven years. No private jets, no glamorous birthday parties stuffed with influencers, no fleet of diamond-encrusted sports cars – but all the more missable for it.
If we feed staff a constant diet of high-level, high-octane, high-glam stories about top level criminals and corrupt PEPs, we risk them getting the idea that all money laundering is like that. In reality, it’s mostly quiet, modest and sneaky – it happens every day, in most financial institutions, and we need to remind them of that. So for every Obiang in your training, make sure you include a Woodall as well.