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The chief executive of NatWest, Dame Alison Rose, has apologised to Nigel Farage over what she described as “deeply inappropriate comments made in the now-published papers prepared for the Wealth Reputation Risk Committee” of Coutts, the NatWest subsidiary that recently terminated Farage’s bank account. Rose announced that she is “commissioning a full review of the Coutts’ processes for how these decisions are made and communicated to ensure we provide a better, more transparent experience for all our customers in the future.”
The apology came after intense political pressure on NatWest from government ministers, including Rishi Sunak. Home Secretary Suella Braverman saw the closure of Farage’s bank account as a cue to further stoke the culture wars over immigration that her party now sees as perhaps its only chance of rallying its base ahead of the next general election, tweeting:
“The Coutts scandal exposes the sinister nature of much of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion industry. Apparently, anyone who wants to control our borders & stop the boats can be branded ‘xenophobic’ & have their bank account closed in the name of ‘inclusivity’.”
Only a few hours before Rose’s craven apology, Coutts itself had issued a statement rejecting Farage’s claim of political persecution:
“It is not Coutts’ policy to close customer accounts solely on the basis of legally held political and personal views. Decisions to close an account are not taken lightly and involve a number of factors including commercial viability, reputational considerations, and legal and regulatory requirements.”
As the financial writer Frances Coppola had earlier pointed out to Farage on BBC Newsnight, the file that Farage obtained from Coutts under a subject access request (a right originating in EU-derived law) suggests that the immediate trigger for the bank’s termination of his account was that Farage had paid off his mortgage, meaning that his house was no longer on the bank’s books as a security against the mortgage loan. This in turn meant that Farage no longer fulfilled the bank’s minimum asset criteria. She also observed that it was up to banks to choose whom they do business with.
Farage responded explosively: “They’re all woke, they’re all Remainers, they’re all globalists!”
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The George Cottrell Connection
The Coutts file certainly makes interesting reading. Its observation that Farage “is considered by many to be a disingenuous grifter”, while no doubt offensive to Farage, can hardly be called untrue. It’s clear that the bank was well aware of the multiple allegations of racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and support for Vladimir Putin that Farage has attracted over the years, and that it saw such views as both incompatible with its values and potentially damaging to its reputation.
But the question of values may be something of a red herring, as is Farage’s claim to have “absolute proof” that his account was not closed for commercial reasons. For a bank, the risk of reputational damage is very much a commercial risk – in other words, a risk that could impact on its business by deterring customers and potential customers.
Coutts, which caters to the ultra-wealthy, may well have other customers with similar views. From the bank’s perspective, the problem with Farage is that, as a public figure, his views and the fact that he banked with Coutts were very much public knowledge. And although Farage is rich, he is not that rich. Had he been a low-profile racist billionaire, perhaps Coutts would have assessed the risk/reward balance differently.
What was more remarkable about the Coutts file was what it didn’t include: Farage’s long-standing links with various perpetrators of serious financial fraud.
There was no mention of his friend and former personal assistant George Cottrell, for instance. Cottrell was arrested by FBI agents as he travelled through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport with Farage in 2016 and charged with 21 offences, including blackmail, extortion, bribery and money laundering. After plea-bargaining, this was reduced to a single charge of wire fraud to which Cottrell pleaded guilty and for which he received an eight-month jail sentence in the US.
As well as being Farage’s PA, Cottrell was UKIP’s co-director of fundraising, a post for which former UKIP candidate William Cash said he had been selected thanks to his knowledge of “the murky and complicated world of shadow banking, secret offshore accounts and sophisticated financial structures”.
After Cottrell was arrested in Chicago (he’d been accompanying Farage on a trip to support Donald Trump’s election campaign), another close associate of Farage and Banks, Andy Wigmore, passed confidential legal documents about the arrest to Sergey Fedichkin, an official at the Russian Embassy in London, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained.
Farage did not sever his connection with Cottrell after this criminality was exposed. In fact, he has been seen with him several times since, both in London and in Montenegro, where Cottrell took up residence under a different name, George Co, and became embroiled in allegedly illegal crypto-currency activities before fleeing the country earlier this year.
In 2019, the Daily Mail published photos of Farage sipping champagne with Cottrell/Co at a polo tournament in Tivat, Montenegro. Shortly after this, Farage began extolling the virtues of crypto-currency in his daily ‘Fortune and Freedom’ subscription newsletter, though it is not known whether this was inspired by the enthusiasm of his old friend Cottrell/Co.
The Steve Bannon Link
The Coutts file mentions another old friend of Farage’s in passing, the far-right populist and mastermind of Trump’s 2016 election campaign, Steve Bannon. Bannon acted as a mentor to Farage after they met in 2010 and was credited by Farage for the Leave campaign’s victory six years later.
Since then, Bannon has fallen foul of the law in several ways, not least by actively inciting the violent attack on the US Capitol in January 2021 (Farage had, like Bannon, amplified Trump’s false claims of electoral fraud, alleging that “the only way Trump can lose is if the mail votes are tampered with”). In July 2022 Bannon was convicted on two criminal contempt charges in relation to his refusal to testify to Congress about his role in the insurrection, and he was later sentenced to four months in jail.
But Coutts does not pick up on one aspect of Bannon’s activities that ought to be of particular interest to a bank conducting due diligence on one of his associates: his ongoing prosecution for money laundering and conspiracy to defraud. This is in relation to the ‘WeBuildTheWall’ scheme that allegedly defrauded donors in order to enrich Bannon and others. An earlier attempt to prosecute Bannon over the same scheme had been derailed by Trump just before he left office when he granted Bannon a pre-emptive presidential pardon.
Nor does the Coutts file go into any details of Farage’s sources of income, although some of these might also be expected to raise a bankerly eyebrow.
Byline Times has earlier described how the ‘Fortune and Freedom’ financial newsletter that Farage fronts up, and which promises to help subscribers “take back control of your money and your life”, is part of a global network centred on a Maryland-based publishing company, Agora (Monument & Cathedral Holdings), that has fallen foul of US regulators. In 2021, one of its subsidiaries, Agora Financial, agreed to pay over $2 million to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to settle charges that the company and affiliates had targeted elderly Americans with deceptive money-making schemes and unsubstantiated medical treatments.
A subsequent investigation by the US-based non-profit organisation Truth in Advertising found that the company and its affiliates had continued to use “a number of dark patterns to convince seniors to forgo their physician-recommended medications and therapies in lieu of their unproven products and revelations, and to pay for deceptively marketed financial subscriptions”.
In 2021, Farage announced that he had joined the trustee board of a company called Dutch Green Business (DGB), and shared a video made with its CEO Selwyn Duivestijn. In this, Farage enthused about how DGB would be doing “something positive for the environment” with its “plan to plant tens and tens of millions of trees across this world, not just adding to nature but to habitat and biodiversity as well, and to give you the opportunity to offset your carbon consumption”. This came as a surprise, given Farage’s long history of climate change denial.
Duivestijn is a controversial figure in the Netherlands. In 2019 he was found by the Netherlands Authority for the Financial Markets to have given misleading information about the source of the returns generated by MountainShield, a fund that he managed.
The vehicle through which DGB claims to be reforesting the world is Miro Forestry Company Limited, based in the Cayman Islands at the address of Intertrust Corporate Services (Cayman) Limited. The latter is a company that provides “services” in one of the world’s foremost tax havens for an interesting variety of companies from around the globe.
Intertrust Corporate Services (Cayman) Limited cropped up in the so-called Paradise Papers – the leaked material that focused the world’s attention on the use of tax havens such as the Cayman Islands for various nefarious purposes. And in January 2021 it was among a number of Cayman-based companies required by a court ruling to hand over documents relating to one of the largest fraud cases in Denmark’s history, in which two British men are alleged to have defrauded the Danish state of more than 9 billion krone (£990 million).
Of course, this does not mean that the company itself was or is aware of the fraudulent nature of the activities of any of its clients, or indeed that any of its other clients are engaged in racketeering, money-laundering or fraud.
However, there are real reasons to be sceptical of DGB’s claim to be making a positive contribution to the world’s climate, and a Greenpeace investigation has also shown the company to have made misleading statements claiming to be “partners” with other well-known companies when this was not in fact the case.
Still, perhaps all will be well at a company that in 2020 appointed as chair of its supervisory board John Mappin – another friend of Farage and a QAnon conspiracy theorist. Mappin’s business credentials include running a hotel in Cornwall compared in TripAdvisor reviews to the hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror movie The Shining, as well as having been found by a court to have defrauded a highly vulnerable person of £77,500. What could possibly go wrong?
Too Rigorous? Or Not Rigorous Enough?
Whatever one thinks of his political views, Farage has a striking number of associates either alleged or proven to have taken part in financial fraud or deceptive practices of one kind or another. Perhaps this is mere happenstance – but it is the sort of happenstance that one might expect a bank such as Coutts – or indeed any bank – to regard with a fair amount of interest.
For fairness and transparency, it is only right for banks to be obliged to disclose the reasons for which they are closing a customer account. Coutts seems to have failed to do this properly in Farage’s case, and the file it eventually released to him was not sufficiently clear about these reasons.
But the real question raised by the Coutts file on Farage may be not whether the bank’s customer due diligence has been too rigorous, but whether it has been rigorous enough.