LONDON: Brexit campaigner Arron Banks denied Sunday ever receiving Russian money or assistance for the campaign to leave the European Union. The Sunday Times, citing emails it received from a journalist who worked with Banks on a book, said Banks and his associate Andy Wigmore had repeated contact with Russian officials both before and after the referendum campaign.
Banks, a British businessman who co-founded and bankrolled the Leave.EU campaign, will face questions from lawmakers Tuesday about his links with Russia after a report said the connections went further and deeper than previously disclosed.
Britain has said it had not seen evidence of Russian interference in its votes, but lawmakers are investigating whether the country played a role in trying to influence public opinion before the EU referendum as part of a broader inquiry into “fake news.”
“I have never seen such a conflated story in all my life,” Banks told Reuters. “Yeah, we had two lunches with the Russian ambassador and passed on a business contact. So what?” When asked if he ever received Russian money or assistance for Brexit, Banks laughed: “No, of course not. You know if I have, I’m still waiting for the check.
“This is just a complete absolute garbage – it is like the Salem witch hunt. They just keep on screaming ‘witch, witch.’”
“The big picture is that they are in the full Remain swing – they are trying to discredit everyone involved in Brexit and it just continues apace,” Banks said.
“It wasn’t just the Russians: We met all sorts of nationalities, we also briefed the State Department in Washington, we also met with the top embassy officials in London,” he said. “So if we are Russian spies we must be American spies too.”
The Sunday Times reported that Banks was introduced to London envoy Alexander Yakovenko by Alexander Udod, a “suspected Russian intelligence officer.”
Banks has also reportedly admitted that he handed over phone numbers for members of Donald Trump’s transition team to Russian officials, after meeting with the U.S. president-elect in November 2016 in New York.
Banks, an insurance industry millionaire, has previously said he had “a six-hour boozy lunch” with Yakovenko at the Russian Embassy on Nov. 6, 2015.
Citing email correspondence, The Sunday Times said that meeting was set up by Udod and that he was one of 23 suspected Russian spies expelled by Britain following the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March.
The paper quoted Andy Wigmore, a close Banks associate who was present at the meeting, as saying they did not offer “any information to [the ambassador] or any Russian any details of our campaign.”
The report said Banks and Wigmore met with Yakovenko again for a cup of tea on Nov. 17 at a meeting that also included mining magnate Siman Povarenkin to discuss a deal involving six gold mines in Russia.
Banks said nothing came of the gold mine discussions.
The paper said the Brexit campaigners subsequently invited Yakovenko and Udod to a drinks party in London’s Notting Hill hosted by Banks, and the Russian ambassador was also asked to attend their results party in Westminster.
Banks and Wigmore were invited back to meet Yakovenko after they, and Brexit firebrand Nigel Farage, met with Trump in November 2016 shortly after his election.
“The ambassador was obviously keen to know how our meeting [with Trump] went,” Wigmore said.
The report was based on emails passed to the paper by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who ghostwrote Banks’s memoir “The Bad Boys of Brexit” and is now writing a book on Russian attempts to influence British politics.
The paper said she came forward after she said her email accounts were hacked.
“Banks and Wigmore were shamelessly used by the Russians,” Oakeshott said in The Sunday Times.
But Banks told the paper: “I had two boozy lunches with the Russian ambassador and another cup of tea with him, bite me.”