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TWENTY years ago, when I first came across Hemant Lakhani, he was far from the ruthless arms dealer trying to provide ground-to-air missiles to terrorists as alleged in an American court. Known as “the Umpire”, he was the man helping the Fraud Squad with the biggest fraud investigation London had seen.

The name Umpire was given to him by Brian Cooper, then a detective inspector in the Metropolitan Police Fraud Squad based in Holborn.

Mr Cooper was investigating the collapse of Esal Commodities, a London-based commodities group owned by another London-based businessman of Indian origin, Rajendra Sethia.

Esal went down with debts of nearly £250 million. Sethia defrauded millions from various banks, some Middle Eastern but mostly London branches of Indian banks. But he had fled the country and Mr Cooper did not find it easy to get any answers.

Many of Esal’s creditors were Indian businessmen who were not all that eager to talk to a policeman. This is when Mr Cooper discovered the Umpire. He had come across Lakhani’s name in the Esal records and one afternoon visited him in his office in the West End.

Mr Cooper was immediately taken by this man. He found him refreshingly frank, never used two words when one would do, and — unlike some Indians who can be very cryptic with strangers — very direct.

“Yes,” he told Mr Cooper, “Esal owes me money. I could make a statement but that would be it. I will not help you any more. But if you do not drag me into court then I will help you in many ways, help you explain the intricacies, tell you what is going on.”

Mr Cooper, frustrated by his lack of progress, realised he could do with a man who knew the Esal crowd.

Lakhani, the typical Indian middle-man trader, now became Mr Cooper’s middle man. Mr Cooper, a keen sports fan, dubbed him “the Umpire” as the man who could adjudicate between the often conflicting stories he was hearing.

I was then a business journalist on Financial Weekly investigating the Esal story, about which an Indian business friend had tipped me off.

Until then Esal had been strangely neglected by the financial press. The moment my story appeared I started getting telephone calls from creditors and lawyers eager to share information and prod me into doing more digging.

The strangest calls came from the Umpire, but unlike the other callers, he would not give his name or even leave a number. Colleagues joked about him as my “Indian Deep Throat”.

After many such calls, he eventually gave me a name — which subsequently turned out to be false — and it was weeks before we finally met.

Those early meetings established a pattern. Generally they were held at the Great Eastern Hotel near Liverpool Street or the Churchill in Portman Square.

He would arrive in a taxi and walk quickly through the length of the lobby and refuse to acknowledge my presence. Then, having made sure there was nobody he knew in the lobby, he would beckon me furtively to a corner.

His spook-like behaviour never ceased. At Esal creditors’ meetings or court hearings he always ignored me. Eventually he did give me his office number, but since he had given me a false name this only produced comical confusion.

But he invariably wore a heavy, sickly perfume so I could always follow his scent.

He would later tell me that his reluctance to identify himself was because he was physically afraid that some people whom he feared had underworld contacts with the Kray brothers might come after him.

This may have been the Umpire fantasising, but there is no doubt that some sections of the Indian community did not like my Esal investigations. I was warned off and told that Mr Cooper should keep his nose out of the affair.

The Umpire proved a brilliant source and essential to my investigations. The Fraud Squad had made clear that while they could do nothing to jeopardise their investigations or break confidentiality, if I came across information they would confirm or deny the accuracy.

So the day after they raided the London offices of the Punjab National Bank, the Umpire rang to say he had “hot news”. I checked his raid story with Chief Insp Smith, who confirmed that the Fraud Squad had “executed a search warrant”. There were many such scoops.

Long after the Esal story led to court cases and Cooper had given up trying to get Sethia — the Fraud Squad dropped the extradition proceedings and he remains in India — Lakhani refused to break cover.

In 1989, along with my colleague Cathy Gunn, I published a general book on fraud which had a chapter on Esal. But while many of my informants were happy to be identified, the Umpire refused to let me use his name.

I subsequently lost contact with him, but wonder if his strange mixture of secretiveness and an element of fantasy has landed him with his current problems.

© Mihir Bose

      

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