A former in-house counsel at drinks giant Diageo who became a sole practitioner has been struck off after being ‘duped’ into facilitating an investment fraud.
Pascale Wood-Atkins confirmed the terms of a ‘leveraged account’ at the request of Switzerland-based investment fund Provartis AG (PAG) and its agents without seeing the underlying evidential document.
She also made false representations to customers about what would happen to their money, allowed her independence to be compromised and failed to pick up on any warning notice about fraudulent financial arrangements, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal ruled.
A three-day hearing at the tribunal earlier this year heard Wood-Atkins had also failed to return client money promptly and provided banking facilities through her client accounts. The tribunal found she was ‘used because she gave the appearance of legitimacy and security’ to the scheme.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority, which brought the prosecution, told the SDT that Wood-Atkins, sole practitioner at her Buckinghamshire firm, made representations to PAG investors that their funds could be paid to the firm, where the money would be protected and then transferred to one of two banks.
In November 2012, Wood-Atkins became aware that the proposed investment scheme was not possible and tried to start a similar programme in Hong Kong.
In total, from October 2012 to August 2013, the firm charged a total of £202,644 in fees to the PAG ledger account.
Wood-Atkins had established the niche commercial firm in 2001 after training with larger City firms and working in-house for Guinness/Diageo for around 13 years.
Three of 20 character referees who had provided written testimonials attended the tribunal to give evidence. These included Brian Beanland, former company secretary and business support director of Guinness Brewing Worldwide, who described Wood-Atkins as ‘an excellent lawyer who was honest and trustworthy’.
Wood-Atkins accepted that the responsibility for what had happened rested with her as sole principal of the firm. She told the tribunal she had not succumbed to temptation but that the work on offer seemed ‘real and substantial’.
The tribunal found that PAG had been a vehicle for fraudulent schemes and that Wood-Atkins was involved to the extent that she allowed her name and professional status to give credibility to the activity, offering assurances to investors who went on to lose all or part of their money.
The tribunal was satisfied on the evidence that the PAG investors had relied, at least in part, on the contents of client confirmation letters from the firm giving assurances about security of monies.
It added: ‘The tribunal could not accept that an intelligent and experienced solicitor such as the respondent, particularly one who was careful with words throughout her career, would not understand the words she had written.’
The tribunal also noted that Wood-Atkins had made a ‘colossal error of judgment’ in taking fees from one of the investors’ funds.
Her actions had not been fraudulent, it was found, but her conduct had facilitated fraud.
‘The respondent had blindly trusted those instructing her, when those individuals were not the men of substance they purported to be and proper enquiry or the normal degree of scepticism to be shown by members of the profession would have revealed this,’ it said.
Greg Treverton-Jones QC, representing Wood-Atkins, said she had been ‘groomed, exploited and used’ by her client. He urged the tribunal to consider a long suspension rather than impose the automatic sanction for conduct involving dishonesty.
But the tribunal said although she had been ‘duped’, regulators had warned solicitors of the risks of being exploited and it was their responsibility to be alert to any attempts of fraud.
It concluded: ‘Even without the finding of dishonesty, the totality of the respondent’s misconduct - the lack of integrity and the fact that the respondent had facilitated a fraud, albeit she may not have appreciated at the time that this is what she was doing - was so serious that a striking-off order would have been appropriate.’
Wood-Atkins was ordered to be struck off the roll of solicitors and to pay £70,000 costs. She has 21 days from the judgment to appeal.