Brexit campaign donor grilled by MPs on Russia links


LONDON — A British millionaire who helped bankroll the Brexit campaign played down his connections with Russian officials on Tuesday, amid lingering concerns Moscow targeted the divisive 2016 referendum with so-called fake news.

Arron Banks, the outspoken founder of the campaign, faced nearly three hours of questioning by British lawmakers probing the spread of misinformation online.

It followed weekend newspaper reports that the insurance industry millionaire was offered business deals in Russia and held previously undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador.

Critics contend Banks, who donated nearly £10 million (EUR11.4 million, $13.4 million) to the pro-Brexit campaign, could have been influenced or used by the Kremlin, which was eager to break up the EU.

But the 52-year-old called the furor around his ties to Russia "a full-scale witch-hunt". He told MPs he held two lunches with London envoy Alexander Yakovenko, while a possible business deal involving six gold mines "fizzled out".

"That's the extent of it," he told the parliamentary hearing. "I don't regard this... as constant contact with the Russians. It wasn't. I've got no business interests in Russia and I've done no business deals in Russia."

Banks, who is married to a Russian woman, also denied recent claims he made a February 2016 visit to Moscow.

Banks denied traveling to Russia at that time. "If anyone's got evidence I was in Moscow please bring it forward," he said.

Banks confirmed reports he gave phone numbers for Donald Trump's transition team to Russian officials, after he had met with the US president-elect in November 2016 in New York. But he denied passing on other material.

"I can categorically say no, we didn't," Banks said. "I don't have access to political information."

Andy Wigmore, a former British diplomat and close associate of Banks who also appeared at the hearing, said Yakovenko simply "couldn't believe Trump had won" and was scrambling for contacts.

Both Banks and Wigmore insisted they had not tried to conceal contact with Russians and "briefed the American security services on everything that transpired".

"If I was intent on hiding my involvement with the Russians, I did a pretty bad job of that," Banks said.

A spokeswoman for the US Embassy in London confirmed its officials "met occasionally" with the pair in late 2016 and early 2017 "at their request".

"The Embassy has no comment on the substance of those conversations," she said, adding staff routinely meet with a range of political, business, and civil society representatives "to better understand the political environment".

After the hearing, committee chairman Damian Collins said it was "difficult" to know whether to believe the pair. "(They) themselves put on the record that they frequently lie, exaggerate, misspeak and misunderstand," he said. — AFP