Ex-Commonwealth lawyer jailed for £600,000 frauds

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Joshua Brien  ( )
Joshua Brien ( )

A high-flying lawyer who swindled the Commonwealth and a top international legal firm out of more than £600,000 has been jailed for seven-and-a-half years.

Joshua Brien, 48, took advantage of his role at the Commonwealth Secretariat to siphon money into his own bank account, pretending the funds were going to a client.

Brien, a former adviser to the Australian attorney general, repeated the fraud when he moved on to become a special counsel at US law firm Cooley.

The qualified lawyer denied wrongdoing but was convicted of four counts of fraud at trial.

He was sentenced by Judge Martin Griffith to seven-and-a-half years in prison.

“You are a strange person as far as I can see”, said the judge at Southwark crown court.

“I have heard from people who gave character evidence who speak very warmly about you. I found it hard to square that with the man who gave evidence with a capacity to lie, repeatedly.”

Brien, from Notting Hill, built up a reputation as an expert on the laws of the sea during 12 years at the Commonwealth Secretariat, offering advice to countries around the world.

The organisation, which has its headquarters in Pall Mall and is now led by former Labour attorney general Baroness Scotland, provides administrative and legal support to the 54 countries of the Commonwealth.

Brien took advantage of a lack of checks on payment details when he substituted his own bank account for that of a consultant Phil Simmons who had been hired to provide services for the Cook Islands.

He managed to divert £146,000 to himself between 2014 and 2016, sending in a string of invoices for work never carried out by Mr Simmons.

Brien even sent messages to colleagues to chase up payments he knew were going to himself.

“Mr Brien understood how the system worked and he manipulated it to steal quite a lot of money,” said prosecutor James Norman.

“The method was as simple as it was dishonest. He replaced the bank details held on the Commonwealth Secretariat system for Mr Simmons for his own.”

Judge Griffith said Brien had told a series of “blatant lies” during the trial as he tried to blame someone else for the fraud.

“The idea that someone else was sneaking into your office and was using your email to send out false invoices resulting in money being paid into your account was complete moonshine,” he said.

Speaking after sentencing, Baroness Scotland said: “I want to express my sincere appreciation to the Metropolitan Police team who worked closely and diligently with my Secretariat team to look thoroughly into the facts, collect evidence and identify lessons learned.

“The Secretariat is also grateful for the assistance of the UK and Australian authorities in bringing the perpetrator to justice.

“The Secretariat have already tightened our procedures significantly since the period of the fraud, which would prevent a similar fraud being committed today.

“Because of the work of all involved, we have been able to demonstrate that misuse of public funds will not be tolerated at the Secretariat.”

Brien was sacked by the Commonwealth for an unrelated disciplinary issue and in 2018 the fraud came to light when Mr Simmons asked about a payment he was owed in a chance meeting.

By this point, Brien was at law firm Cooley and had started up a new scam to steal £493,000.

He had not told his new bosses at the law firm about being dismissed from his previous job and managed to steal £403,000 which should have been paid to Cooley by two clients as well as £90,000 from the Government of the Maldives.

When he was charged last year, Brien’s wife Melissa Khemani, an anti-corruption specialist who also worked at the Commonwealth Secretariat, was also embroiled in the scandal as she faced a money laundering allegation.

However she walked free from court in January when the charge was dropped by the CPS.

Brien, a dual Canadian-Australian citizen whose legal career now lies in ruins, was on Friday cleared of a further charge of fraud, alleging he had lied about his wealth to obtain a rental flat.

During the trial, he was given “glowing” character references, including one from a QC, and his wife submitted a statement to the court on Friday detailing the impact the prison sentence will have on their family.

“He is properly held by those who know him as a family man, and the references speak of a kind and caring man, who is clearly a bright lawyer and a bright man,” said Leon Kazakos QC, representing Brien.

“He is a principled environmentalist who has worked throughout his career from Australia to his years at the Commonwealth to improve the lot of poorer nations.”

Brien denied but was found guilty of three counts of fraud by abuse of position and a charge of fraud by false representation.

He now faces confiscation proceedings to try to recover the stolen money.

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