When I was a little girl, I had one of those 3D plastic viewers; you put a circular cardboard plate of tiny transparencies in it, looked to the light, and pressed the trigger to change the picture. Whenever he went on a business trip my father would buy me a new set of pictures, and after a visit to America he came back with “Great Monuments of the USA” or similar. There they were in 3D spendo(u)r: the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the White House, Old Faithful – and the Statue of Limitations. Yes: at some point in my early years – no doubt while earwigging on conversations that had nothing to do with me – I had concatenated two related ideas, and became convinced that the tall New York lady holding an ice-cream (well, those pictures were very small and lost some of the detail) was indeed the Statue of Limitations.
Now older and wiser, I dwell instead on the significance of the statute. Of course, it is much more complicated than it first appears: there is not just one statute, and it can be varied depending on the circumstances. And in the UK we call them “limitation periods” rather than statutes. But the key point for those of us of an AML turn of mind is that, when it comes to money laundering offences, there is no time limit on either element: the crime which generated the money that is being laundered can be as old as the hills, and the money laundering can be prosecuted at any point in the future. This sometimes gives MLROs a piercing headache, as at several points in a career they will be confronted with a variant of this question: “How far back do we have to go with this due diligence stuff? After all, most of England’s stately homes were built on the proceeds of slavery.”
Such a tricky question. We can discount some concerns pretty easily: what matters is whether the crime was a crime when it happened, so that’s eighteenth century slave-trading done and dusted (along with Leo Sayers’s hairdo and John Travolta’s disco trousers). But other concerns are less easily assuaged. I always opine that dirty money is never laundered – that it retains the stain of criminality no matter how clever and determined the laundering. And as a principle I stand by that. But we have to be realistic. Financial services firms are not detective agencies, and are not expected to act as such. You should conduct professional and diligent due diligence to a standard that enables you to say with confidence that – when viewed with the professional, diligent and dispassionate eye of someone doing your sort of job at your sort of level in your sort of firm – your client appears not to be a crook. Moreover, we must also recognise that law enforcement agencies work under (sometimes quite severe) constraints of time and money. As a consequence, much as hospitals perform triage in order to deal with the greatest dangers first, they prioritise their energies on cases where they have the best chance of a successful outcome (i.e. conviction and confiscation). So although I would dearly love them to be able to winkle every last penny of criminal proceeds from the grasping hands of criminals, I know it’s not going to happen – and so should MLROs and their staff. We must all accept our limitations – even Roman goddesses of freedom.