Business

The donor, the Russian deals and the Conservative money machine

Late in 2020, the Conservative grandee Sir Nicholas Soames received a memo about a party donor called Mohamed Amersi. The 61-year-old Amersi describes himself as “a renowned global communications entrepreneur, philanthropist and thought leader”. Along with his partner, he has given the party more than £750,000 since 2017. That has bought him membership of the exclusive Leaders Group of donors and its monthly lunches with British government ministers.

The memo, and a more-detailed follow-up, sketched out some details about Amersi’s past, his associates and his dealings in Russia, according to four people with knowledge of the matter. In early January 2021, Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill who recently stepped down as an MP, forwarded the memos to the man charged with bringing in the money that helps keep the Tories in power: Ben Elliot. The founder of Quintessentially, a “concierge” company that serves the super-rich, Elliot is the party’s co-chair. If the memos caused him any concern, it was not enough to stop the party accepting another £50,000 of Amersi’s money on January 18.

When copies of the memos reached Amersi, his lawyers sent letters to Soames and to Charlotte Leslie, the former Tory MP who had written them. The letters demanded that Soames and Leslie should not obstruct Amersi’s plan in effect to insert himself into one of the most sensitive areas of UK foreign policy by setting up a group to handle the Conservatives’ relations with the Middle East. The party’s board is due to decide imminently whether to back Amersi’s group.

Along with his partner, Mohamed Amersi has given the party more than £750,000 since 2017 © Lokman Lihan/Anadolu/Getty

Amersi’s growing sway has alarmed some in the Tory party, including two former cabinet members. One of them points to last year’s report by parliament’s intelligence committee on Russian influence in the UK as a reason to carefully scrutinise all donations. After scandals over the Greensill affair, the funding of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street redecoration and Covid-19 contracts going to favoured Tory contacts, divisions over Amersi add to differences in the party about who to accept money from.

Court documents and company records show that Amersi made part of his fortune doing deals in 2005 with a business empire that a Swiss tribunal found to be controlled by a close associate of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. Amersi was also accused in a separate 2006 lawsuit of trying to “extort” a $2bn payment from a businessman on behalf of a Russian oligarch.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Amersi says: “I have not made a dishonest deal in my life, in Russia or elsewhere.” He says he made $7m in Russia but has not done business there since 2008. “Not a penny that I earned in Russia . . . has even remotely come close to being invested in the UK political system.”

More recently, he says, he has spent £300,000 on legal fees in a dispute with those who raised concerns about his growing influence in the ruling Conservative party.

The party says: “Donations to the Conservative party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them and comply fully with the law.” But it had no comment on Amersi’s legal dispute with some figures in the party.

Former Tory MP Charlotte Leslie, who wrote internal memos containing some details about Amersi’s past, his associates and his dealings in Russia
Former Tory MP Charlotte Leslie, who wrote internal memos containing some details about Amersi’s past, his associates and his dealings in Russia © Adrian Sherratt/Shutterstock

Doing business in Russia

A UK citizen born in Kenya with family roots in Iran and India, Amersi began his career as a lawyer. While at Jones Day in the early 1990s, he was embroiled in a dispute over conflict of interest rules in a venture involving Lebanese businessmen and a Saudi bank.

A UK High Court judge described his conduct as “lamentable” — and his evidence in the ensuing lawsuit as “unreliable”. Amersi says the judge had “no clue . . . how sophisticated dealmaking works in the real world” and behaved like a “farmer”. He adds that, despite this ruling, he was later given senior positions at major companies such as Rothschild’s.

Amersi turned to business, including in Russia, where the collapse of the Soviet Union meant vast industries were falling into the hands of those with the cash and connections to acquire them. He joined a consortium bidding in a telecoms privatisation. His side lost but further opportunities soon appeared. “He’s very ambitious,” says a western businessperson who encountered Amersi at the time. Another remarks: “He knew God and the devil and everybody.”

In 2005, Amersi cut a deal that made him millions. The owners of the US group Metromedia wanted to exit Russia. The jewel of their assets was one of St Petersburg’s biggest fixed-line telecoms companies, PeterStar. They found a buyer: a Luxembourg company called First National Holding which already had a stake in PeterStar. Amersi helped put the $215m deal together. When the sale was completed in August 2005 he received a small equity stake and the right to sell that stake to the buyers, which he promptly did, making him $4m.

Leonid Reiman, second right, with President Vladimir Putin, left, in 2007, when Reiman held the post of information technologies and communications minister in the Russian government
Leonid Reiman, second right, with President Vladimir Putin, left, in 2007, when Reiman held the post of information technologies and communications minister in the Russian government © Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty

Ostensibly, First National Holding’s owner was a Danish lawyer, Jeffrey Galmond, who in the 2000s was embroiled in a brutal corporate battle against one of the most formidable oligarchs of the Putin era, Mikhail Fridman. Both sides claimed to be the rightful owner of a disputed stake in MegaFon, a Russian telecoms company worth billions of dollars. The legal battle culminated in a May 2006 ruling in a Zurich arbitration tribunal. It concluded that Galmond was not a telecoms tycoon but acting as a frontman for Leonid Reiman, a senior member of the Putin regime.

When Putin became Russia’s president in 2000, the former KGB officer brought with him some of those with whom he had run St Petersburg in the years after the collapse of communism. Reiman was one of them. A fluent English speaker, he had worked in the city’s telecoms department, alongside Putin’s then wife Ludmilla, overseeing deals in the newly liberalised telecoms market.

Putin named Reiman as his minister in charge of the telecoms industry. But according to the Zurich arbitration tribunal, Reiman had also amassed private interests in Russian telecoms. Some of the telecoms assets that had passed to the group that Reiman was found to control had been misappropriated from the Russian state, the tribunal found. Its ruling was subsequently upheld by the Swiss Supreme Court and endorsed by other courts elsewhere.

Reiman, who declined to comment for this article, has previously denied the allegations that Galmond — who insists that he was the owner of the telecoms empire — was acting as a frontman for him.

Ahead of the 2005 PeterStar deal, the allegation that Galmond was fronting for Reiman had appeared in the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. But Amersi says his lawyers produced a “path to fortune memo” on the sources of Galmond’s wealth that was “pretty good”. He adds: “Who am I going to go and ask and say, ‘Oh, is Galmond the owner or is his wife the owner or is his secretary or Mr Reiman?’ Who would tell me that? Let’s get real.”

His relationship with Galmond appears to have deteriorated shortly afterwards. Amersi allegedly delivered a message from Fridman to the Danish lawyer threatening that he “would be imprisoned” unless he agreed to pay $2bn to the Russian oligarch for the disputed MegaFon stake. The alleged 2006 incident is recounted in a New York lawsuit, brought by a fund controlled by Galmond, that was dismissed after a banker who was party to the case vanished and the other parties agreed it should be dropped.

Amersi says he did relay a message to Galmond that Fridman wanted $2bn for the stake but that he did not make the imprisonment threat nor did the oligarch ask him to. Fridman declined to comment.

Amersi’s dealmaking stretched from Nepal to Dubai and beyond. From 2007 to 2013, he served as an adviser to the executives of TeliaSonera, a Scandinavian telecoms company that had interests across the former Soviet Union. With the exception of Mauritania, he says he has done business in every country in the Middle East and north Africa.

Clockwise from top left: Theresa May, Sir Eddie Lister, Hugo Swire and Mark Garnier. They are among those Amersi says have agreed to take positions at his Conservative Friends of the Middle East and north Africa group
Clockwise from top left: Theresa May, Sir Eddie Lister, Sir Hugo Swire and Mark Garnier. They are among those Amersi says have agreed to take positions at his Conservative Friends of the Middle East and north Africa group

Rubbing shoulders with royalty

Having made his money, Amersi began to amass influence. But the millions he dispensed would in time draw scrutiny. He set up a charitable foundation in 2012 registered in the Bahamas and says his priorities as a philanthropist have been in education, youth empowerment and social cohesion.

He also became a client of Quintessentially. Its founder, Elliot, “connected us to the Prince of Wales”, says Amersi. At a 2018 event at Lancaster House Amersi posed in flower-patterned black suit with his Russian-British partner, Nadezhda Rodicheva, also known as Nadia, flanking Elliot’s aunt, Camilla Parker-Bowles. In 2015 Amersi became a trustee of the Prince’s Trust International, an organisation founded by Parker-Bowles’ husband, the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles. Amersi stood down recently after two terms.

Amersi says Elliot seemed to act as an “unofficial treasurer” for the Tories and “started seeking donations from me and Nadia for the Conservative party even before he became chair”. Their first donation came during Theresa May’s reign, when other donors, displeased with her leadership, held back. In 2019, after her resignation as prime minister and during the general election campaign, she delivered a tribute to him at the opening of an Oxford lecture theatre named in his honour after he paid for it to be refurbished.

Nadezhda Rodicheva, left, also known as Nadia, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Mohamed Amersi attend a Lancaster House function in 2018
Nadezhda Rodicheva, left, also known as Nadia, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Mohamed Amersi attend a Lancaster House function in 2018 © Dave J Hogan/Getty

Amersi, dressed in red robes, told the dignitaries present: “You begin by learning how to make money. Then how to hang on to it. And then finally how to give it away.”

He had by that stage already given £10,000 each to Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Rory Stewart — who says he later returned the money — during the leadership election to choose May’s successor as Conservative party leader and prime minister in July 2019. More money followed after Johnson’s victory. In total, Amersi has given half a million pounds to the party, twice the amount donated by his partner and outspending over the past three years more celebrated Tory donors such as Lord Ashcroft, Zac Goldsmith and Lakshmi Mittal.

Now Amersi wants to take up a position helping to manage the Conservatives’ relations with the Middle East, an important geopolitical region for the UK.

The party already has a body that takes delegations of MPs to the region: the Conservative-Middle East Council (CMEC), founded in 1980. In 2019, CMEC ceased to be formally affiliated with the party, allowing it to accept non-Conservatives as members and seek wider funding. Amersi claims “the party clearly felt there was a vacuum in its and the government’s UK-Middle East relations, which should be addressed”. He says that over dinner with Johnson, before he became prime minister, he proposed that the party needed a new organisation “post-Brexit, to develop better ties with Middle East countries”, and that Johnson subsequently told him, “great idea, go out and do it”. Downing Street declined to comment.

Recent CMEC delegations have enjoyed audiences with the region’s power brokers, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Through his new group, the access Amersi stands to gain would be, in the words of one Arab ambassador, “top — very top”. Amersi says today he has no commercial interests in the Middle East and few anywhere else.

Clockwise from top left: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Rory Stewart and Jeremy Hunt. Amersi gave them £10,000 each during the leadership election to choose May’s successor as Conservative party leader and prime minister in July 2019
Clockwise from top left: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Rory Stewart and Jeremy Hunt. Amersi gave them £10,000 each during the leadership election to choose May’s successor as Conservative party leader and prime minister in July 2019

Among those Amersi says have agreed to take positions at his Conservative Friends of the Middle East and north Africa group (Comena) are May, as patron, Johnson’s confidant Sir Eddie Lister, MP Mark Garnier and former MP Sir Hugo Swire. May declined to comment. Lister says he would only take up the role if the party grants Comena’s affiliation. The others did not respond to requests for comment.

Amersi, who has registered Comena as a private company with himself as the only named shareholder, plans to sit as chair. Its funding of £500,000 a year will, he says, come equally from him and another Tory donor, the Egyptian businessman Mohamed Mansour. A spokesman for Mansour declined to confirm to the FT that he would be providing this funding.

As the Comena project gathered momentum last year, Leslie, who has run CMEC since 2017, began to look at Amersi’s background. She sent at least two memos to Soames, CMEC’s honorary chair. Within days of Soames passing them on to Elliot, Amersi donated another £50,000 to the party. Amersi says this was an annual donation to keep up his Leaders Group membership.

He also retained London law firms that specialise in “reputation management”. Mishcon de Reya sent an initial letter to Leslie, followed by about a dozen from a second firm, Carter Ruck. Threatening to bring a lawsuit, they alleged that the Leslie memos were defamatory of their client, say people with knowledge of the matter. They demanded an apology, a retraction, damages and assurances from Leslie and others including Soames that they would not try to block Comena’s affiliation.

Boris Johnson and Ben Elliot in 2018. Johnson appointed Elliot Conservative party co-chair the following year
Boris Johnson and Ben Elliot in 2018. Johnson appointed Elliot Conservative party co-chair the following year © Dave Benett/Getty/Din Tai Fung

The Leslie memos, says Amersi, mischaracterised a Russian woman’s role at Comena, his attempts to secure affiliation for the group and his Iranian connections. “Not even a Russian in my career has ever behaved in the atrocious, selfish and dishonest way that this woman has behaved. And if I have to take her to task for it, then I will absolutely do it. Because she has lied and she has made up stories.” He adds: “How dare she insult me?”

Amersi says his legal costs are approaching £300,000, “which I could have given to the party, to the poor, to other people”. Initially, he says, he thought, “I do not want to hurt them. I do not want to bankrupt them. They are not wealthy people. All I’m asking for is, ‘Say you’re sorry’.”

Court records show that on June 29, the day after the FT approached him for comment, Amersi began legal proceedings under data protection law against Leslie and the CMEC. “I have thus far spared Sir Nicholas the embarrassment of being sued”, he says, “based on his grandioseness”.

Speaking for herself and Soames, Leslie says: “We have done nothing wrong.” She adds: “I have been subjected to a political and legal assault for more than six months. Amersi has been able to use expensive lawyers to bring a legal sledgehammer to our small organisation.” She says her actions “have been in the public interest”.

Party officials are attempting a mediation between Amersi and Leslie. At the same time party bosses must decide whether to grant Amersi’s Middle East group formal affiliation. It is a decision that will bring fresh scrutiny to one of the most powerful forces in British politics: the Conservative money machine.

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Moscow, Sebastian Payne in London and Richard Milne in Oslo


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