The husband of one of the Conservative Party’s biggest donors was secretly funded by a Russian oligarch with close ties to President Putin.
Lubov Chernukhin has given £1.7m to the Tories, including paying to spend time with the last three prime ministers.
Leaked files show her husband received $8m (£6.1m). The money initially came from a politician facing US sanctions due to his closeness to the Kremlin.
Her lawyers say the donations are not tainted by Kremlin influence.
A leak of banks’ “suspicious activity reports” – called the FinCEN Files shows Vladimir Chernukhin was sent the money in 2016 from a British Virgin Islands company linked to Suleyman Kerimov.
Officials at Deutsche Bank in New York reported it as being among $278.5m of transactions involving the offshore company.
Two acronyms you need to know, FinCEN is the US Financial Crimes Investigation Network. These are the people at the US Treasury who combat financial crime. Concerns about transactions made in US dollars need to be sent to FinCEN, even if they took place outside the US.
Suspicious activity reports, or SARs, are an example of how those concerns are recorded. A bank must fill in one of these reports if it is worried one of its clients might be up to no good. The report is sent to the authorities.
Deutsche Bank ignored red flags for years and played an integral role in the historic $230 billion money laundering scandal now engulfing Danske Bank’s Estonian operation. The German giant’s automated systems flagged one anonymous U.K.-registered shell company — later revealed as a major laundering vehicle — a dozen times but the bank still processed $2.6 billion and didn’t file a SAR for years until a separate scandal brought the shell company to light.
There has been an increasing focus on donations to political parties from wealthy UK-based Russians in recent years, with July’s parliamentary report by the Intelligence and Security Committee referring to the possibility they could allow people to “assist Russian influence operations”.
Mrs Chernukhin’s donations to the Conservative Party began in 2012.
The majority – more than £1.5m – came after the $8m payment linked to Mr Kerimov was made to her husband on 29 April 2016, although it is not clear if any of that cash went to the Tories.
Journalist and Russia expert Ed Lucas, who gave evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into Russian influence, told Panorama: “The Chernukhins, pleasant people that they might be… are not fit and proper people to make donations to a British political party.”
Mr Lucas said he was “profoundly concerned by the access that, not only Lubov Chernukhin but also other rich Russians have to the heights of the Conservative Party, and to the government”.
Mrs Chernukhin’s lawyers say the Kremlin had no influence because of the donations – but they would, wouldn’t they?
Boris Johnson has suffered a huge amount of bad publicity over his reluctance to do anything about suspicious donations from Russians linked to Putin’s government.
Mrs Chernukhin’s donations to the Tories have given her access to figures at the top of UK government.
Banker Mrs Chernukhin, who is believed to be a British citizen, gave £200,000 to the Tory election campaign before Christmas, and enjoyed a night out with Theresa May and six female Cabinet members in April after donating £135,000 at a fundraiser.
In 2014 David Cameron faced questions after Mrs Chernukhin successfully bid £160,000 at a party fundraising dinner to play tennis against him and Mr Johnson.
The former PM was accused of hypocrisy over the donation, which came at a time when he was pushing for tougher Western sanctions against Moscow in response to its annexation of Crimea and the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
However, the Tories insist all donations are properly declared and checked.
And the 47-year-old has twice made winning bids at auction for tennis matches with Boris Johnson. The last, in February this year, cost her £45,000.
When in 2018, Boris Johnson – then foreign secretary – was asked about the Chernukhins and the £160,000 tennis match donation, he told the BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “If there is evidence of gross corruption in the way that gentleman… obtained his wealth… then it’s possible for our law enforcement agencies to deprive him of his wealth.”
But he added “all possible checks have been made and… will continue to be made” on donations.
‘Property projects loan’
The $8m payment to Mr Chernukhin was made by an offshore company called Definition Services, which is controlled by Mr Kerimov’s children. The documents show their funding comes from their father and it is Mr Kerimov who has the personal relationship with Mr Chernukhin.
As Deutsche Bank was processing the money, it sent questions to officials at another bank involved in the transaction.
The evidence that Conservative government had given Russian oligarchs who donated money to the party unprecedented access to and, we may conclude, influence over – top-ranked political figures including the last three prime ministers is overwelming
If Boris Johnson and his government continue to deny any wrongdoing – while refusing to allow an independent investigation – the public will have no choice but to brand them as corrupt lackeys of the Russians.
The FinCen Files is a leak of secret documents which reveal how major banks have allowed “dirty money” to be moved around the world. They also expose how US intelligence sees the UK as a “higher risk jurisdiction” and show it is awash with Russian cash from unexplained sources.
The files were obtained by BuzzFeed News which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and 400 journalists around the world.