Friday, October 30, 2020

Financier Bill Browder Plays the Long Game to Expose Russian Money-Laundering

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Several of the recent corporate sagas involving allegations of money-laundering at European banks have featured a central character: Bill Browder, the American-born financier who has been on a decade-long campaign to expose Russian corruption.

Mr. Browder, chief executive of Hermitage Capital Management in London, has asked prosecutors across Europe to open criminal investigations into suspicious transactions linked to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, who died in 2009 while in Russian custody after he was detained on charges related to the tax fraud he uncovered. Mr. Magnitsky was an attorney for Mr. Browder.

In several cases, however, prosecutors have rejected his requests. The most recent example: Finnish police this month declined to open a probe based on a complaint from Mr. Browder alleging suspicious transactions at Helsinki-based Nordea Bank Abp . Swedish investigators also declined a similar request regarding Swedbank AB in Stockholm.

In an interview this week, Mr. Browder—who also touched on his activism at Danske Bank A/S—described his focus on criminal investigations as a first step in his long-term plan to push for legal action against bank executives whose companies have laundered money linked to the Magnitsky cases. Spokespeople for all three banks declined to comment.

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Here is an edited transcript of the conversation, which took place on the sidelines of an Association of Certified Fraud Examiners conference here.

Q: Prosecutors in several countries have declined to investigate criminal complaints you have filed. Has that impeded your campaign?

A: Not at all. I mean, it does temporarily. Denmark and Estonia both refused to prosecute the Danske Bank case when we filed in 2013. We took all of the information that we got from [a previous] case file, and we collaborated with Berlingske newspaper, which is one of the major Danish newspapers. Then that led to eventually Danske Bank sort of coming clean, and saying instead, actually the [amount of potentially laundered money is] $230 billion. And then all of a sudden, the Danish opened up a serious criminal investigation. We were then brought in as victims and witnesses. The Estonians also reopened the case.

Q: What does justice look like for you?

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A: So, who are we going after? Our top targets are the people who tortured and killed Sergei Magnitsky. But our secondary targets are those people who profited from the crime that he was killed over or facilitated the money laundering for those people. These are sort of third-order crooks, as far as we’re concerned. Even though their crime is less heinous than torturing him in a prison cell, the fact that Westerners were collaborating with Russian torturers means that in a certain way, in my analysis of morality, these people actually knew better.

We’d like to see from this case anybody who played a role in the false arrest, torture and death of Sergei Magnitsky, received any proceeds of the crime or laundering the proceeds of the crime, bear a legal punishment.

Q: At Swedbank, the CEO was fired. Is that not enough?

A: No, firing is nothing. All firing says is, is that if you get caught money laundering, you lose your job, right? And so most people say, “Well, you know, that’s not a very serious sanction.” I’d like to see people go to jail.

Q: Nordic countries are supposed to be some of the least corrupt countries. What do you think allowed this to happen?

A: Well, what I can say about Denmark…Every law firm in town has some business with Danske Bank. We’ve been looking for a lawyer in Denmark, and everybody is conflicted.

Everyone sort of trusts everybody. What it does is it means if somebody has done something bad, they don’t really have the psychological infrastructure to come down like a ton of bricks on the people that did bad stuff, because everybody assumes maybe they didn’t, and they said they didn’t, and so on and so forth.

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