Unmasked: Commonwealth’s top lawyer guilty of £600,000 fraud

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A high-flying lawyer swindled the Commonwealth and a top international legal firm out of more than £600,000 in a series of frauds.

Joshua Brien, 48, established himself during 12 years at the Commonwealth Secretariat as an expert on the laws of the sea, offering advice around the world. But at the end of his tenure, Brien — a former adviser to the Australian attorney general — diverted £140,000 of client payments into his own bank account.

After leaving the organisation and becoming a special counsel at US law firm Cooley in 2017, Brien siphoned off £493,000. Brien, right,from Notting Hill, denied wrongdoing, claiming money was paid to him for work he had carried out as a private consultant.

But he was convicted on all counts following a trial at Southwark crown court, and faces a jail term when he is sentenced on Friday. Jurors heard how Brien was able to steal money while at the Commonwealth Secretariat because basic anti-fraud checks were not routinely carried out.

The organisation is led by former Labour attorney general Baroness Scotland, and provides administrative and legal support to the 54 countries of the Commonwealth. But it has been dogged by allegations of mismanagement, cronyism and misappropriation of funds.

Following Brien's conviction, a Commonwealth spokesperson said: “It was due diligence of Secretariat staff and strengthened internal controls under the leadership of current Secretary General that led to the police investigation of Joshua Brien.

“This fraudulent activity started before her term in office and the Secretariat is grateful for the assistance of the UK and Australian authorities in bringing the perpetrator to justice.”

James Norman, prosecuting, told the court that in 2014 a consultant, Phil Simmonds, was engaged to provide services for the Cook Islands, but Brien diverted the fees into his bank account.

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

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

Brien sent emails to colleagues chasing the supposed fees for Mr Simmonds, the court heard, and he even created an email account to pose as the consultant. Revealing the shortcomings of the organisation’s anti-fraud checks, Mr Norman said: “Up to April 2016, the accounts department wasn’t checking with suppliers whether the amendment being requested was real.”

The fraud was eventually revealed in 2018, after Brien had been sacked for an unrelated disciplinary breach and joined leading global law firm Cooley.

He did not tell his new bosses about being dismissed from his previous job, and went on 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.

Brien’s wife, Melissa Khemani, an anti-corruption specialist who also worked at the Commonwealth Secretariat, faced a money laundering allegation, but was cleared in January after denying all wrongdoing.

Brien, a dual Canadian-Australian citizen, was found guilty of three counts of fraud. Reporting of his trial was banned by Judge Martin Griffith, but the order was lifted today after an application by the Evening Standard.

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