London has a stock exchange that few outside the City have heard of. It’s called the Alternative Investment Market (or AIM) and it’s a haven for fraudsters and corrupt businessmen. This month the total value of companies listed there reached £80 billion—the highest level in over two years.
This evening Radio Four’s File on 4 investigative series will delve into some of the more notorious players on AIM, including Sable Mining—a company at the centre of Global Witness’s recent exposé of bribery and fraud, The Deceivers.
Sable was founded by renowned former England cricketer Phil Edmonds and his business partner Andrew Groves. They were behind many other controversial ventures on AIM, including one that negotiated an oil deal with rebels and another that lent Zimbabwean despot Robert Mugabe $100 million just as he was about to steal elections in 2008.
The London Stock Exchange Group set up AIM in 1995 to allow smaller companies to float their shares with less regulation and expense than on the main exchange. That has allowed many strong UK companies to thrive there. It has also provided a home to unscrupulous firms that benefit from the wealth and cachet a London listing brings while continuing to operate in the shadows.
Unlike the main London Stock Exchange, AIM is “self-regulated”. Companies listed there aren’t governed by the UK Listing Authority. Instead, their brokers—known as nominated advisers or Nomads—double up as their official regulators. The Nomads, of course, have little incentive to shop their paymasters.
Which is why there is scandal after scandal. Based on leaked documents, on-the-ground research in Africa and interviews, The Deceivers exposed how Sable bribed a string of top Liberian officials. Other AIM-listed Edmonds and Groves ventures hid dodgy deals behind offshore companies, while business partners who fell out with the duo fell victim to intimidation and hacking. We spoke to several people who said they were in fear of their lives.
It’s a classic example of how London’s financial system is open to abuse. Global Witness campaigns against offshore companies because without them—and the lawyers and accountants who set them up—scams like those we uncovered in The Deceivers and bribery schemes more generally would be much harder to pull off. Anonymously owned companies are always a red flag for corruption investigators—but not apparently for AIM.
Edmonds and Groves, and their lawyer, said the offshore deals were for the benefit of their non-immediate relatives and were within the market rules. Sable said that any bribery was the fault of the man running its West African operations.
But leaked emails cast doubt on those explanations, showing Edmonds and Groves directly involved in the stock market scams. Groves was also copied on an email from his Liberian lawyer detailing much of Sable's bribery.
In Liberia The Deceivers triggered a national crisis. Both the Senate speaker and the chairman of the ruling Unity Party were arrested, and face criminal charges along with Sable, Groves and others. Parliamentarians and traditional elders eventually forced the Speaker to resign, driving corruption to the top of the national agenda.
In London, Sable’s chairman, PR agency and Nomad quit, while JP Morgan sold all its shares. Earlier this month Sable announced plans to leave the exchange.
Global Witness isn’t the only organisation worried about AIM. Campaign groups RAID and the Environmental Investigation Agency, and the investor group Sharesoc, have all raised the alarm about the exchange’s regulatory black hole.
It’s remarkable that a company listed in London engaged routinely in this sort of behaviour and got away with it for so long. It’s all the more astounding that the London Stock Exchange Group can look on unfazed as its AIM market sees endless scandal. “We’ve got absolutely the right regulatory framework,” the head of AIM, Marcus Stuttard, has said. But after 21 years it has become clear that the self-regulation model isn’t working and that AIM should play by the same rules as its big brother.
(For responses to questions from Global Witness ahead of publication of The Deceivers in May 2016, click here (Edmonds and Groves reply); here (reply from their lawyer, Philip Enoch); and here (letter from Sable Mining).