Underground Russian InfluenceJohnson and the Ghost Station
Turlough Conway reports on how a new legal case against the Prime Minister raises more questions about money laundered in London and Conservative connections to Russia
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A lawsuit by former Dragon’s Den star and Brighton businessman Ajit Chambers – who claimed that Boris Johnson “stole” his project to reopen 26 “ghost stations” as tourist attractions – also reveals how a pro-Putin Ukrainian oligarch managed to get his hands on a major public asset, even though he was under a global FBI indictment at the time.
Chambers withdrew from an auction for the historic Brompton Road underground station – located in well-heeled west London – in 2013, due to concerns about security but now believes that the whole bidding process was fixed because the unused station was sold to Dmytro Firtash, a Conservative Party donor known by the UK Government and international security agencies to be a serious security risk.
In 2016, a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation, The Great Housing Scandal, revealed that the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) had actually deferred the payment of £33 million of the £53 million purchase price for the station. This effectively entrusted Firtash with a £33 million tax-free, high-risk loan of British taxpayer money.
Despite calls by Helen Goodman MP to use an Unexplained Wealth Order on Firtash to reclaim the Brompton Road property for the UK taxpayer, the British Government has made no intervention since.
In 2019, VTB Bank, which is controlled by the Russian Government, was successfully granted a freezing order on Firtash’s London properties including the Brompton Road station. The £33 million owed by Firtash looks now to be out of reach of the British taxpayer.
How Could the Government Not Have Known?
Mark Lancaster, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Personnel, said that the MOD was not aware of the FBI investigation at the point of sale. However, there was already a red flag next to Firtash’s name at the highest level of Government.
In 2010, Baroness Lilian Pauline Neville-Jones – who served as David Cameron’s Minister of State for Security and Counter Terrorism – had an appointment to the role of National Security Advisor blocked by MI5 due to security concerns around her connections to Firtash. She had been taking donations from Robert Shetler-Jones, the chief executive of Firtash’s global network of companies’ holding group – Group DF. MI5 believed Firtash to be the figurehead for Semion Mogilevich, one of the FBI’s most wanted men and the ‘boss of bosses’ of most Russian crime syndicates globally.
In a confidential memo published as part of the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables in 2010, the US Ambassador to Ukraine claimed that Firtash had admitted that underworld boss Mogilevich was the power behind his gas empire. In fact, Mogilevich had been under FBI investigation since 2006 along with Firtash’s company RosUkrEnergo (RUE).
RUE bought gas from the Russian state gas giant Gazprom and monopolised sales into Ukraine at huge profits. These profits were then skimmed or used to finance the then Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych and allegedly used to keep him under Kremlin control.
Though the indictment was sealed to the public in June 2013, the US asked Austria to arrest the oligarch on 4 November that year. Given the cooperation between US and UK intelligence and law enforcement, it is highly likely that British intelligence would have been aware of this development. Yet, this was weeks before the sale was agreed between the MOD and Firtash on 25 November 25 and months before the sale was completed on 27 February 2014.
Moreover, on 11 November 2013, a case was lodged in the Southern District Of New York against Firtash and Mogilevich by the imprisoned former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko. 39 shell companies controlled by Firtash were named as vehicles for money laundering and Timoshenko’s case detailed Firtash’s influence in the Yanukovych Government. Her detention was condemned on two occasions by US Senate resolutions.
Supporting the Ukrainian President
Firtash was close to the pro-Putin Ukrainian President Yanukovych, whose main lobbyist in Europe and the US was Paul Manafort – the former manager of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign who is now in prison for various offences, including undeclared lobbying for Ukraine.
Yanukovych fled Ukraine after the Maidan Revolution in 2014, in which Ukrainians took to the streets to demand closer ties for their country with the EU, not Russia.
Astonishingly, the sale of the Brompton Road station happened after the Maidan Revolution, when the first major Ukrainian figure to meet the Foreign Office over the tumultuous events was Firtash himself. This was arranged by the current Digital, Culture and Media Minister, John Whittingdale, and Richard Spring – both of whom were on the board of the Firtash-funded British Ukrainian Society (BUS).
Firtash had previously donated extensively to the Conservative Party via his proxy, Shetler-Jones. Whittingdale had taken many trips to Ukraine at the BUS’ expense. In October 2013, Whittingdale was also on the organising committee of the ‘Days of Ukraine’ festival in London, which was sponsored by Group DF and the businessman’s charitable foundation.
Firtash was awarded the honour of being the first businessman to ever open the London Stock Exchange after the festival’s grand opening in the House of Commons. The venture had the patronage of President Yanukovych and the support of the then Mayor of London and current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.
Mark Lancaster also said that the sale of the station occurred in accordance with normal departmental procedures, as mandated by the Treasury. These rules state that the MOD’s senior responsible officer in charge of overseeing the sale would be coordinating with the marketing agent, Jones Lang LaSalle, at all stages of the process.
Before committing, a risk assessment of the ‘deal’ should be undertaken, which must consider money laundering concerns, the purchaser’s track records and the ability to complete the transaction. A due diligence exercise prior to an absolute commitment to the transaction is required to ensure that a sale has followed due process and that the disposal represents value for money in terms of the price achieved and benefits gained.
Malfeasance in Public Office
One person who had grave concerns that due process was not being followed at the time and that taxpayers were for not getting value for money for the sale of a public asset was Ajit Chambers, a bidder for the property in 2013.
Chambers told Byline Times that he conceived the idea of turning disused tube stations in London into tourist attractions in 2009 and that he began working with the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson to bring the project to market.
In his role as Mayor, Johnson was also the head of Transport for London (TfL), which owned many of these stations. In the unusual case of Brompton Road, TfL only owned the platforms while the MOD owned the rest of the station.
Treasury rules allowed the MOD to dispose of the Brompton Road station at less than market value, taking into account wider value considerations such as economic and social value factors like heritage value and tourism – the latter being the aim of Chambers’ proposal for the station.
With the support of Vince Cable, the then Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Chambers took 60 MPs to view the site to assess the plans. He proposed to buy the station for £50 million (under market value) and turn it into a mixed-use centre involving museums, shops, gardens and accommodation, with a an estimated total gain to the taxpayer of £200 million. Chambers had presented his plans to the then Prime Minister David Cameron at Downing Street, met the MOD and Boris Johnson in the Mayor’s office at City Hall, where he presented costed plans seen by Byline Times in which the market valuation of the site was noted as £100 million.
However, Chambers was shocked to learn in mid-2013 that the site was now to be sold by open auction. He told Byline Times that he believes this is related to Firtash expressing an interest in the property, which was beside a mansion he already owned in Cottage Place.
The then chair of Parliament’s Defence Select Committee wrote to the then Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, to express Chambers’ concerns.
Chambers told Byline Times he believes that the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, misled Vince Cable about the level of detail and funding for his project. He believes the open auction bidding process was flawed and that alternative bidders were not allowed proper access to the site for due diligence purposes. In the final days before the auction, he said that a Ukrainian man turned up at Chambers’ apartment with such a threatening manner that he hired a security team and withdrew from the auction. Chambers is now suing Johnson for “malfeasance in a public office”.
The loss of up to £80 million to the British taxpayer over this deal raises many questions about Pro-Putin influencers in the UK and the infusion of dark money in London.
Why did the UK Government agree to sell the ghost station to an oligarch already suspected of money laundering for the Russian underworld? Why did the sale go ahead despite intelligence that Firtash was a direct agent of the Kremlin and involved in a regime that had just killed 100 people in Ukraine? Why did senior Conservative Party figures accept large donations from such a man? And why hasn’t there been a full official inquiry into the scandal?
Meanwhile, the Intelligence and Security Committee report into Russian influence in the UK, cleared for publication six months ago, remains under wraps. Perhaps this is why Boris Johnson wants to keep it that way.