THERE had been a £1 billion bank heist.

The loot could be traced to a flat in Edinburgh and there was nothing the Scottish police could do.

It is nearly three years since a friend in law enforcement first whispered the words “Scottish limited partnerships” or “SLPs” in my ear.

Three financial institutions in the former Soviet republic of Moldova had been emptied, he said. Money had been pumped out of the banks through anonymously owned shell firms – “SLPs” – with accounts in the Baltic states. But there was no crime to investigate in Scotland. Just the metaphorical getaway cars.

READ MORE: Theresa May set to ban secretive Scottish shell companies to halt flow of dirty Russian money

The Conservatives – who, rather than the SNP in Holyrood are responsible for Scots corporate law – have now signalled they will take these (tax) vehicles of the roads.

Their decision (long and much awaited) comes after a major commitment of investigative journalism from The Herald and Sunday Herald and painstaking, clever and – in my view – noble cross-party campaigning by politicians and civic groups on both sides of the border.

It is no co-incidence that the Tories are acting now.

The poisonings in Salisbury have re-ignited concerns about Russian dirty money. And SLPs, as The Herald has reported, played a key role in the biggest ever laundering scheme ever uncovered, the Russian Laundromat. They help moved billions. Yes, billions.

Yet as the Tories moot a full ban (details are yet to emerge) it is worth reminding ourselves of just why my police friend was just so worked up about SLPs three years ago.

Because it is an astonishing story of how Scotland’s good reputation for business and the rule of law has been used against us – and helped to rob the treasuries of countries around the world.

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How? Essentially, some very smart white-collar professionals in Edinburgh have turned an obscure kind of firm in to an alternative to Switzerland’s now closing secret bank accounts.

READ MORE: Theresa May set to ban secretive Scottish shell companies to halt flow of dirty Russian money

Their owners, anonymous shell firms in traditional tax havens, were secret. And the SLPs they created did not need to file accounts or pay tax, at least if they did not operate in the UK. Worse such firms were being marketed across the world as “zero-tax Scottish offshore companies”. They were trading on this country’s clean image. Even now SLPs are sold online, for as little as £1600, complete with a bank account in the Baltic states in their name. That’s anonymous banking, on the cheap. Scotland, we found, was exporting whisky, beef, and what amounted to money-laundering kits. In some places, such as Ukraine, the words “Scottish firm” now have a whiff of sleaze.

The Herald, backed by shell firm expert and researcher Richard Smith, has by no means worked alone. Criminals and money-laundering despots do not respect borders. Nor should journalism.

For example, The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in Bosnia provided the raw data we were able to use to show SLPS and other Scottish shell firms were used to launder out of Russia and Azerbaijan. And we worked with Al Jazeera to identify shell firms doing the same for the circle of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Politicians too have put aside narrow partisanship to campaign for SLPs. Former Labour MSP Hugh Henry was the first politician to spot the issue here. Former MP Roger Mullin helped this paper take our evidence to Westminster as he sought to convince UK ministers to act. His SNP colleague Alison Thewliss took up the cause, working across parties to seek a fix.

All five Scottish parties support SLP reform thanks to a campaign by Oxfam. Why did the aid charity care? For the same reason we all should. SLPs help criminals and despots make poor countries poorer.

Just some of The Herald and Sunday Herald revelations on SLPs since 2015

MONEY-LAUNDERING: Scores of SLPs found churning billions of dirty dollars in the Russian Laundromat, the biggest scheme of its  kind ever uncovered. From March 27, 2017

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GLOBAL BRIBERY: SLPs part of a machine to launder bribes for the $1bn Odebrecht corruption scandal hitting numerous Latin American presidents. From Feb 3, 2018

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CORRUPT ARMS EXPORTS. Scotland named “money-laundering factory” for Ukraine’s gun-runners after SLPs used in corrupt arms exports.  From August 15, 2016

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CHILD ABUSE PORN: SLPs found acting as fronts for websites used to share indecent images of children. Sept 4, 2016

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SANCTIONS-BUSTING: Ships owned by SLPs ran embargo of Crimea, helping Putin control Ukrainian province. August 27 and 28, 2017

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BANK ROBBERY: SLPs were the getaway cars of the a fraud that looted $1bn from three Moldova banks. From June 19, 2015. 

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