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UK investigates biggest funder of Brexit

November 1, 2018

UK officials have launched a criminal investigation into a prominent backer of the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union. Arron Banks has been accused of siphoning Russian cash into the election effort.

Brexit campaign donor and businessman Arron Banks arrives at Portcullis House to give evidence
Image: AFP/Getty Images/D. Leal-Olivas

Britain's National Crime Agency on Thursday said it had launched a criminal investigation into the pro-Brexit millionaire Arron Banks over cash used to promote Britain's exit from the European Union.

The UK Electoral Commission said it suspected that Banks "was not the true source" of money loaned to the Leave campaign, and that he had tried to conceal its real origins.

The commission said it had investigated financial transactions which appeared to come from companies registered in Gibraltar and the Isle of Man. Since 2000, UK laws have effectively forbidden overseas or foreign donations to registered political campaigners.

"Our investigation has unveiled evidence that suggests criminal offenses have been committed which fall beyond the remit of the commission," said the commission's director of political finance, Bob Posner. "This is why we have handed our evidence to the NCA to allow them to investigate and take any appropriate law-enforcement action."

Banks, on tax haven Bermuda when the news emerged, said he welcomed the inquiry and that it would be a chance for him to clear his name.

"I am confident that a full and frank investigation will finally put an end to the ludicrous allegations leveled against me and my colleagues," Banks said in a statement issued by Leave.EU. "I am a UK taxpayer and I have never received any foreign donations."

Meetings at Russian embassy

The Electoral Commission also said another prominent Leave campaigner, Elizabeth Bilney, was being investigated.

The probe into Banks follows the revelation that he held a series of secret meetings with senior Russian embassy officials in London around the time of the referendum. Embassy staff were reported to have presented Banks with a lucrative investment opportunity in a Russian gold company, although the deal never went ahead.

Read more: Opinion: What happened to Brexit architect David Cameron?

Banks — who is said to have been the single biggest donor for the Leave.EU campaign — has previously faced questions in the UK parliament about the source of his wealth.

The commission said it had reasonable grounds to suspect that Banks was not the real source of loans that were made to a company called Better for the Country Limited, of which Banks was a director.

'Ludicrous allegations'

The commission also said it had passed evidence to the National Crime Agency (NCA), to investigate offenses that went beyond the breaking of electoral law.

Read more: Brexit drags up Northern Ireland's dark past

When asked to comment on allegations of possible Russian influence on the vote, a spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said there was "no evidence to suggest that is the case."

Russia has denied backing the pro-Brexit effort in an effort to weaken and divide the European Union.

In the referendum of June 2016, 51.9 percent of those who voted backed leaving the EU while 48.1 percent voted to remain.

rc/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)