Arron Banks, the biggest financial donor to the Brexit campaign, said he was “not remotely remorseful” over revelations that he had held undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador to London.
Mr Banks had a total of three meetings with Alexander Yakovenko in the build-up to and after the EU referendum in June 2016, according to emails seen by two Sunday newspapers.
He had previously admitted only to a “six-hour boozy lunch” in November 2015 with the Russian ambassador in his book The Bad Boys of Brexit.
The emergence of apparently closer contact between Mr Banks, his Leave.EU aide Andy Wigmore, and senior Russian state officials will increase suspicions that the Kremlin sought to influence and disrupt western electoral processes. It is also likely to add spice to questioning of him and Mr Wigmore by a committee of MPs this week.
In the US, President Donald Trump and members of his 2016 election team are being investigated by Robert Mueller, special counsel, over whether the campaign colluded with Moscow.
An ally of Nigel Farage, the former UK Independence party leader, Mr Banks has donated £1.3m to Ukip since 2014. During the referendum campaign he set up his own group, Leave.EU, to which he lent £6m. Leave.EU was a rival set-up to Vote Leave, the official campaign.
Mr Banks confirmed on Sunday he had “two lunches” and “a cup of tea” with Mr Yakovenko. When asked why he had not originally disclosed two of the meetings, he said: “It’s not a court of law. So what? I’m not remotely remorseful.”
Mr Wigmore also confirmed the additional meetings and contact with the Russian embassy. He said he and Mr Banks had nothing to hide.
The emails relating to the Russian encounters, as reported by the Sunday Times and The Observer, had been handed over to the UK’s electoral watchdog, the Electoral Commission, as part of its investigations into the Leave.EU campaign, said Mr Wigmore. In May, the commission ruled that Leave.EU had broken its legal spending limits and referred the campaign’s chief executive to the police.
“We didn’t think there was anything sinister . . . it’s only now that it’s topical that people are looking back over it,” said Mr Wigmore. “All those emails in the Sunday Times were handed over to the Electoral Commission. The fact that they didn’t bother to go through them tells you something.”
The commission said it could not comment because it was still carrying out a second investigation into one of Mr Banks’s companies.
Mr Banks said that, following the initial lunch, a second meeting with the ambassador took place over tea on 17 November 2015. It was at this meeting that Mr Banks was introduced to a Russian businessman interested in discussing a possible deal involving gold mines. He says the discussions went nowhere.
Mr Wigmore said a third meeting took place on 18 November 2016 — just after Mr Trump was elected and he, Mr Banks and Mr Farage met the new US president at Trump Tower in New York. At that point, Mr Yakovenko is reported to have sought contact details for members of the Trump transition team, which Mr Wigmore said he shared with a number of foreign government officials, not just the Russians.
Mr Banks confirmed he would give evidence to MPs on Tuesday alongside Mr Wigmore when they face the Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee as part of its “fake news” inquiry.
Damian Collins, chair of the committee, said on Sunday that the Banks emails raised serious questions not only about the extent of contact between Leave.EU and the Russian embassy but also whether lucrative business deals were being offered by the Russians to influence UK political figures.
“Why weren’t they honest about the level of engagement with the Russian embassy?” said Mr Collins of the emails between Mr Banks, Mr Wigmore and senior Russian officials.
“There are more meetings than previously admitted, so they downplayed their level of contact with Russia. What makes it more complicated is the discussion of business deals.”
Mr Banks said “no one was talking about Russia” at the meetings, adding: “It’s now turned into a witch hunt. We find it slightly farcical — four pages of smoke from a tiny little match.”
The Russian embassy told the Observer: “The Russian embassy has not in any way intervened in the domestic UK political process, including the Brexit referendum. Meeting stakeholders representing all political spectrum of the host country is a natural element of the work of any embassy.”
Speaking on his Sunday radio show on LBC, Mr Farage said he was aware of one meeting between Mr Banks and Mr Yakovenko, which he declined to attend.
“I didn’t realise they met him subsequently and I certainly didn’t know about any gold mining contracts in Siberia,” he said, adding that nothing in the latest reports suggested Russia had any influence over the Brexit vote or Mr Trump’s election.
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