As PM launches anti-corruption summit, tycoon Bill Browder claims: ‘Britain’s a brothel for dirty money’
Bill Browder made his fortune in Russia but has become a fearless critic of Vladimir Putin whom he blames for turning the country into a kleptocracy – and he has a powerful message to David Cameron ahead of his anti-corruption summit this week.
Britain, he says, is a ‘brothel’ for dirty Russian money and the Prime Minister’s anti-corruption drive is just so much ‘hot air’.
Browder, who became a British citizen after renouncing his American citizenship, founded the hugely successful Hermitage Capital investment fund in Russia in 1996.
But Hermitage was hounded out of the country by corrupt officials and now, he says, his adopted homeland – almost alone among major Western countries – is failing to investigate crimes associated with his case including the death of his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
He says the UK needs a clearout at the top of all its enforcement agencies. He separately warns UK firms not to do business in Russia: ‘My story is not unusual, even if the depths of it are. Look at BP. Bob Dudley [its chief executive] had to go into hiding. They tried to poison him in the company cafeteria.’
Dudley was then running BP’s Russian joint venture and had to leave the country after facing what he called ‘sustained harassment’ by the Russian authorities, though BP won’t comment on the poison allegations.
Browder, the grandson of former US communist leader Earl Browder, has become one of the world’s leading critics of Putin’s Russia, with the story of his battle with the President and the death of his lawyer the subject of his best-selling book, Red Notice, published last year.
David Cameron is planning to announce the launch of a global anti-corruption unit this week, but Browder says his own efforts to get British authorities to investigate have come to nothing.
He wants them to probe $30million (£21million) of spending by corrupt Russian officials in the UK that he says ultimately came from a $230million fraud involving Hermitage Capital.
‘The Swiss froze the assets. The US Department of Justice has frozen the assets. We are now able to trace the money to the UK. But every single law enforcement agency has done nothing,’ he says.
The money was spent in the UK on yachts, in fashion boutiques and on private education.
He filed a criminal complaint with the National Crime Agency in March, but he is not confident anything will be done. Details of the complaints had already been put to the Met Police, the now defunct Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Serious Fraud Office, Revenue & Customs and the NCA last year – and none of them has done anything, Browder says. He has the support of MPs including Ben Bradshaw, Richard Benyon and Tom Brake, who have written to Home Secretary Theresa May urging action.
‘There’s evidence that has led to $45million of assets being frozen around the world,’ he says.
Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne are ‘ultimately responsible’ for the failure to act, he says. ‘They should replace the Home Secretary and the head of the National Crime Agency. If they can’t prosecute, bring in someone who can. They’ve created a brothel where everybody is taking money from bad people.’
On Cameron’s anti-corruption summit, which launches on Thursday, he says: ‘They need to bring in some tough investigators. Here I am, a highly dedicated activist, with the ability to afford lawyers and I can’t get a criminal case going,’ he says.
His frustration with British law enforcement agencies and his allegations about their failure to prosecute white-collar crime is in some respects depressingly familiar. But it goes further than the usual criticism, because it is also about Britain’s open-door policy on questionable Russian money.
‘This country is a magnet for dirty money. If you are a bad guy your money is safe here, with property rights and legal rights. The Belgravia and Knightsbridge economies are levitating on it,’ Browder says.
One thing he is backing Cameron on is opposing Brexit. ‘Brexit is Putin’s fantasy come true. He loves dealing with individual countries where you can threaten, bully, bribe. He hates dealing with the EU or Nato.’
Browder’s story could have been very different. His early investments in Russia were extraordinarily successful. One of the first fund managers on the scene in Russia following the fall of the Iron Curtain, he invested in major Russian companies that were trading at huge discounts to the value of their assets. In his first 18 months the fund rose 850 per cent in value. It collapsed again following Russia’s 1998 default on its debts, after which he began investigating major companies run by oligarchs.
‘Gazprom was trading at a 99.7 per cent discount to its book value. Everybody thought everything had been stolen out of the company, so we did a stealing analysis. The Gazprom management had stolen oil and gas equal to the size of Kuwait’s oil fields. But that was only 10 per cent of its resources, 90 per cent was still there.’
Hermitage bought as much stock as possible and shared the analysis with journalists. ‘Putin stepped in and fired the CEO. The share price rose by 138 per cent that day,’ he says. That became his way of operating.
‘For a while it was encouraged,’ he says, but when Putin reached a deal with oligarchs, Browder became a threat to the regime. He was expelled from the country in 2005, and his companies were used to generate a fraudulent $230million tax refund. His lawyer, Magnitsky, was beaten to death in jail after exposing the frauds. Browder and Magnitsky both faced charges of tax evasion over Gazprom. Browder denies all charges.
He has persuaded the US Congress to pass a law, known as the Magnitsky Act, restricting the movement of officials involved in the fraud from travelling or spending money in the West, and is hoping the UK will do the same. He is concerned for his personal safety. ‘I leave Russian officials with as few opportunities as possible,’ is all he will say. He says it is now time for Britain to act. ‘This is my country. I pay taxes and expect the authorities to respond.’