Canadian lawyer Martin Kenney is one of the world's top anti-fraud experts. He also happens to be the older brother of our federal citizenship minister.
By: Alison Armstrong/Julian Sher Special to the StarStaff Reporter, Published on Fri May 24 2013
He cracked a billion-dollar fraud case for the Brazilian government and he is just back from Cairo where the World Bank sent him to help the Egyptian government track the millions the deposed Mubarak regime may have stolen and hidden offshore.
From his corporate headquarters in the British Virgin Islands, the Canadian lawyer has made it his mission to hunt fraudsters around the globe and recover their ill-gotten gains.
And he makes no apology for his uncompromising stance on financial crime, insisting it can be as destructive as rape and or even murder.
“White-collar crime can be every bit as devastating to the human psyche and person as a violent crime, in some cases much worse,” says Kenney, “because you deprive the person of confidence, their feeling of self-worth. You destroy the soul when you do that to a person.”
When Kenney is not jetting around the world, he finds time to share his views on the need for Canada to get tougher on financial crime with his younger brother Jason, minister of citizenship and immigration and one of the most powerful ministers in Stephen Harper’s cabinet.
Canada’s lacklustre performance in fighting financial crime contributes to “a culture of fraud” that has exploded with globalization, warns Kenney. “Canada has a bad track record in the area of fighting corruption and fraud internationally.”
Kenney, the oldest of three brothers, grew up in Oakville and later smalltown Saskatchewan where his father — determined to “put some leather” on his son’s hands — prepared him for life by enrolling him in competitive hockey and later sending him as a teenager to work as a roughneck on the oilrigs.
“Martin embraced the whole approach of my dad: Go hard in everything you did,” Jason Kenney told the Star in an interview.
The Tory minister — known to be a hard-slogger in his own right —marvels at the drive of his brother who is eight years older. “He is absolutely dogged, he won’t let go,” he says. “He doesn’t have an off switch.”
Martin Kenney got his first taste of the dirty world of fraud in the late 1980s when, working as a young lawyer for a Saskatchewan family, a business associate stole $400,000 by simply switching the signature card on a bank account — a card Kenney had entrusted to the man to take to the bank.
To this day, Kenney remembers “how upset I was with myself, the stupidity I felt in making a mistake in trusting someone.”
It was a mistake he vowed not to make again.
By the time he was working for a New York City law firm in 1993, Kenney had cracked his first big case, retrieving millions of dollars stolen from a Canadian bank through an international cheque-kiting scam.
He did it by hiring a former CIA agent to pose as fraudster and chat up the suspect in Bermuda while wearing a body wire.
“I recognized that I was dealing with organized criminal activity,” Kenney says. To beat his opponents he was going to have to be as crafty and devious as them, while still obeying the law.
He studied FBI case files to learn how the government took down the Mafia. He set up an international asset-recovery firm in Ireland called Interclaim — later reborn as Martin Kenney and Co. Solicitors in the British Virgin Islands, a well-known hotspot for tax havens and money laundering.
Now recognized as one of the top fraud recovery firms in the world, his team includes lawyers, forensic accountants, former CIA and MI6 operatives, retired U.S. secret service agents — even a psychiatrist.
The job comes with what Kenney calls “a hot-zone of risk.”
In Brazil, while taking on an organized crime gang that was defrauding a national bank, he and his team in Sao Paulo were protected by armed guards around the clock.
In Moscow, he learned that killers hired to get rid of troublesome investigators come cheap.
“The price of a life in Moscow is 500 bucks,” says Kenney.
Kenney’s drive has earned him kudos as a modern-day “Robin Hood” but condemnation from his opponents for his excessive zeal.
One lawyer for a convicted fraudster targeted by Kenney called him “an international commercial terrorist who practices extortion.” Another lawyer said Kenney’s tactics amounted to “terrorism” and “economic blackmail.”
Kenney takes the criticisms as compliments.
“Well, I guess I’m doing my job if I’m getting those kinds of reactions from defence lawyers,” he says.
What Kenney finds less amusing is the state of fraud and money-laundering investigations in his home country.
Canada has consistently ranked poorly in fighting financial crime compared to other Western countries by groups as varied as the OECD and Transparency International, though there has been some improvement lately.
“Canada is considered a soft touch,” Kenney says, noting it is “mildly irritating” when people at international gatherings pester him about his native country’s performance.
He says a fraudster who steals millions from senior citizens in a community might get “10 years tops” in Canada.
“In the U.S., you’re done. You will go to jail for 50 or 60 years. You go to jail for the rest of your life.”
Kenney says when he does see his brother Jason — they try to talk on the phone once a month and meet at family gatherings or when their travels coincide — he isn’t shy about criticizing Canada’s weak financial crime laws.
“I’ve talked to him about some issues and he’s listened carefully to some of my thoughts,” Kenney says diplomatically, though he is quick to add: “He’s my brother, so I don’t give him a hard time.”
Jason Kenney, while defending his government’s record, admits his fraud-fighting brother offers some sage advice.
“Apart from him being my brother, I think we should heed what he has to say because he is generally regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in this area,” he says.
He says his brother is making up for the fact that around the world local law enforcement often lacks the resources, expertise and determination to conduct complex global financial investigations.
“He’s pursuing justice in many ways that police can’t,” says Jason Kenney.
Martin Kenney’s views of the Canadian system will be tested as he takes on the TD Bank in a complex battle that is winding its way through the courts.
Kenney and his team are representing 159 Canadians who lost more than $45 million in savings when the Stanford International Bank collapsed and its owner Allan Stanford was sentenced to 110 years in Texas for a $7-billion fraud in 2012.
In a lawsuit filed before Quebec Superior Court in February 2012, Kenney and his team claim that the TD Bank kept doing business with Stanford’s bank, which was based in Antigua, long after other financial institutions cut their ties.
“Given that the matter is before the courts,” said TD bank media relations office, Wojtek Dabrowski, “We can’t comment.”
Kenney says he will keep on fighting to expose what he says in a deep-seated culture of corporate negligence and willful blindness.
“It takes a small army to steal and hide a billion dollars,” Kenney says
Alison Armstrong is a freelance film producer in Toronto.