The RCMP's white-collar crime investigators announced criminal charges in two high-profile cases of alleged fraud in Toronto on the same day in 2008: One against former executives at the helm of Nortel Networks Corp., and the other targeting former executives of Royal Group Technologies Ltd.
These two high-profile cases were seen as signs that the Mounties' Integrated Market Enforcement Teams (IMET) were finally starting to hook large fish and combatting Canada's reputation as a place where corporate crimes went unpunished.
But 41/2 years later, both cases are closed without a single conviction, despite sprawling investigations that took years and involved literally truckloads of documents. After Monday's acquittal of the Nortel executives, Canada's reputation remains intact as a place where convictions in white-collar crime cases are rare. And some observers believe radical changes are needed, including scrapping the team altogether.
Ermanno Pascutto, a former executive director of the Ontario Securities Commission and currently the executive director of the Canadian Foundation for Advancement of Investor Rights, says the IMET concept was flawed from the beginning. To pursue major white-collar crimes, he said, you need specialist investigators, commercial litigators and forensic accountants, not career police officers.
"You simply can't take people whose career has been spent in policing, give them a couple of courses in law and accounting, and expect them to be a successful force in dealing with complex financial crimes," Mr. Pascutto said.
He says IMET should be scrapped and replaced with a new financial crime agency, separate from the RCMP, to investigate major frauds and white-collar crime.
The force's IMET initiative, set up by the Mounties across the country in 2003, had been fiercely criticized for spending millions on investigations but putting few white-collar criminals behind bars.
Spokespeople for the RCMP did not respond to requests for comment on Monday. According to the RCMP website, the IMET initiative, which includes 10 teams of police officers, forensic accountants and legal advisers in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and other specialists in Ottawa, had a budget of $40-million in 2010, an amount that had steadily grown from just $10-million in 2003. Its mandate is to investigate large frauds that "pose a genuine threat to investor confidence and economic stability in Canada," or those of "regional significance."
According to a government report evaluating IMET's work from 2010, 30 charges were laid in the teams' first seven years. According to an annual report from 2008-09, the most recent such report available on IMET's website, the units had charged 26 people and secured five convictions since their work began in 2003.
Criticism of IMET's record of delays and number of convictions will come as no surprise to the force. In late 2011, even incoming RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said the units had "their strategy all wrong" and need to use more traditional police methods, such as recruiting sources and doing undercover work, instead of waiting for financial regulators to refer cases.
Six former Royal Group Technologies executives – including founder Vic De Zen – were found not guilty of fraud in 2010 after a lengthy trial over real estate transactions at the Ontario plastics company. A judge in Toronto on Monday acquitted three executives at Nortel of fraud, saying there was no evidence the telco gear maker's financial records were fraudulently manipulated.
The one remaining high-profile IMET case that has been reported involves Sino-Forest, the forestry company that collapsed last year amid questions over its operations in China. The RCMP said in November that it had launched a criminal probe into possible fraud at the company once worth $6-billion.
Greg Draper, a former sergeant with one of the RCMP's IMET units in Calgary who now works on forensic investigations for MNP LLP, said proving complex fraud cases to the criminal standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt poses enormous challenges for police, compared to provincial securities regulators that can pursue fraudsters in civil hearings, where the burden of proof is easier to meet.
He said the Nortel ruling would be a blow to the police who worked on the case, but added that the ruling did not turn on the way the case was investigated: "The police did their job, putting the case together and handling properly and putting it before the courts. It's all they can do."
Douglas Hunt, a Toronto criminal lawyer and former assistant deputy attorney-general and director of criminal law for Ontario, said the blame for Canada's lack of muscle against white-collar crime must be spread much wider than just IMET. (He acted for a witness in the Nortel trial and stressed that he was not commenting on this case specifically.)
"IMET has a lot of really good investigators," Mr. Hunt said. "... But I think generally speaking, the culture in Canada has been one where there has not been a very high priority put on the prosecution of white-collar crime generally."