The implications of yesterday’s scandalous revelations about the relationship between Britain’s most powerful firm of political lobbyists and a fugitive Venezuelan banker charged with bribing US politicians have yet to be fully absorbed.
It is crystal clear from the criminal indictment, laid before the High Court in Puerto Rico on Thursday after the arrest of the former Governor Wanda Vazquez on bribery charges, that the UK company CT Group knew it was breaking US election laws by accepting a lucrative contract from a foreign national to help the Governor’s election campaign (she ultimately lost in the primary).
The banker, Julio Herrera-Velutini. who is on the run from his own country where he is charged with financial fraud, does not have US citizenship. This means that he is not allowed under US law to fund any election activities either in cash or in kind.
The charges are based on the fact that not only did he do so by hiring the subsidiary CT Global to help Governor Vazquez to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, but he did so as a bribe to drive her to perform a jaw dropping abuse of her powers to save his bank from scrutiny.
In short, Herrera-Velutini induced the Governor to outrageously sack the Commissioner of Puerto Rico’s financial regulatory authority (the OCIF) who had been conducting investigations into his bank and had discovered extensive malpractice and money laundering (mainly with regard to Herrera-Velutini’s own accounts).
Not only that, the second part of the deal, which Herrera-Velutini insisted be carried out before he coughed up the cash to pay CT Group, was that the Governor should appoint his own choice of successor to run the OCIF, namely a consultant who had been working for his own bank up till that point.
Governor Wanda Vazquez agreed to the criminal proposal, and multiple messages and texts laid before the court have proven exactly how this conspiracy allegedly unfolded with the Governor being forced to play her part before she received confirmation of the quid pro quo – that Herrera-Velutini would in return pay the UK company to help her campaign.
CT Group, which is headed by Boris Johnson’s key election strategist and political advisor Sir Lynton Crosby, will say it was entirely unaware of the bargaining behind the scenes.
However, answering questions put by Sarawak Report in June the company went further and lied outright, claiming in a statement:
“C|T was only engaged by Mr. Herrera, and never did any work for the Governor or her campaign.” [underline added]
The evidence and communications placed before the court last week make it absolutely clear that this was not true.
The company knew it was not true as three of its top executives had been interviewed by the FBI in April in London in front of their own lawyers during which they would have been asked to explain, for example, why they produced a presentation entitled ‘Campaign Support Proposal for Governor Wanda Vazquez’ if they thought they had merely been commissioned to provide election information for a foreign banker in Puerto Rico?
Then, of course, there was the small point that no less than four members of the company were flown over from London, accompanied by Mr Herrera-Velutini himself, to present that proposal in person to the Governor and her political aides at a meeting in Puerto Rico before the contract to assist in her campaign was signed.
They knew exactly who they were working on behalf of, if paid by Velutini.
All this is in the court papers. Leading the delegation was the senior CT Group partner and Chief Global Projects Officer, Mark Fullbrook, who just happened to leave the company suddenly this March after the scandal broke in the USA.
The same Mark Fullbrook is now running the leadership campaign for Liz Truss and it would be nice if Ms Truss could let everyone know exactly who is paying him to do this.
Mark Fullbrook had to know that Herrera-Velutini’s commissioning of polling and strategic advice was on behalf of the Governor of Puerto Rico, given these events and the plain and obvious fact that such highly expensive services were of little use to a foreign banker.
He and his CT Group partners must also have been aware that it was illegal for Mr Julio Herrera-Velutini to be donating to a US politician in this way because, as the indictment makes clear, he is a foreign national and “not a citizen or legal permanent resident of the United States”.
CT Group cannot have been deceived as to who they were being paid by either given the communications cited by the prosecution between themselves and the agent who was working for the banker. For example this text sent to a senior CT partner in January 2020 just before the contract was signed:
“The Governor wants [The International Consulting Firm (CT Group)].. Some campaign finances will pay for your services. The bulk will be paid by Julio”.
Then this email to Fullbrook himself on the same day in January 2020:
“As an update Julio H., met with the current Governor and her Chief of Staff yesterday. The Governor is very excited about the prospect of utilising [the International Consulting Firm (CT Group)] for her re-election campaign,” and “[t]he campaign is actively raising funds, and will pay for a portion of [the International Consulting Firm]’s services. The bulk of the payment will be done by Julio H;, and similarly wealthy individuals here whom are creating a super PAC. Julio H. will personally fund anything which is not covered by the campaign or PAC” [underlines added]
So, everyone at CT Group, including Fullbrook, knew the enterprise was being illegally funded by Julio Herrera-Velutini on behalf of the Governor. Indeed, this is why CT Group, while not presently named in the indictment (they are referred to anonymously as ‘International Consulting Firm’) are currently categorised as ‘subjects’ of the investigation rather than mere ‘witnesses’.
The distinction is important because it means that whilst the company says it is cooperating with the FBI investigations it is also in danger of eventually being prosecuted as well for having so blatantly broken the rules itself to facilitate the illegal conspiracy between the foreign banker and senior US politician.
The company knew the work was for the Governor, but its contract was with Herrera-Velutini. As proof the court papers show that immediately following their meeting with the Governor the banker’s agent Mark Rossini texted CT Group that the Herrera Velutini had agreed to a contract that would pay them £250,000 and then £200,000 a month to cover the campaign work until the elections in November.
“Julio agreed for the contract and will pay [the International Consulting Firm/(CT Group)] on Monday 250 [thousand] pounds for the first phase which is the research and thereafter the campaign at around 200 [thousand] a month until the election in November.”
Rossini added, “I hope [CT Group] knows I only bring the best clients”. When Mark Fullbrook later enquired whom to invoice communications show that Rossini replied with the address of an entity linked to the bank. Bancredito is owned by Herrera-Velutini, the court papers make clear.
Once the OCIF Commissioner had been replaced with “our men for the job” Herrera-Velutini duly paid CT Group an initial £263,000 ($315,000) March 25th and in April CT Group submitted a first report summarising results of polling and research conducted in Puerto Rico.
CT Group therefore knew it was receiving illegal foreign donor money, even if through the paper thin disguise of the bank’s Delaware-based holding company. And although the consultancy may not have been privy to the seedy details of the bribes involved, the slightest due diligence and common sense would have signalled that these illegal actors could only have been up to no good.
It leaves us with a question. If this is how Britain’s premier lobbying outfit was prepared to behave in the United States what is it up to here?
Laws in the UK are far less draconian against lobbyists which means that outfits such as theirs have even more free rein to play fast and loose with third party players potentially funding campaigns behind the scenes.
For example, was CT Group also not telling the truth when media enquired back in 2019 as to whom was funding the work of several staff and two senior partners for Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign?
The same Mark Fullbrook gave a somewhat unconvincing response:
A spokesperson for CT Group, the parent company of CTF Partners, said Fullbrook and Canzini worked on the Johnson leadership campaign in a personal capacity “unconnected to their employment”.
“Neither Mr Fullbrook nor Mr Canzini undertook any activities which required registration under the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014.”
Was this for free? If so, they were not divulging since they claimed there was no need to register their activities under lobbying law (they were indeed cleared after a complaint by the Lobbying Registrar).
Meanwhile, the CT Group emerged as one of the donors to Boris’s campaign. Subsequently, CT Group personnel have been in and out of Downing Street, sometimes as informal advisors at daily briefings, as has been Sir Lynton Crosby’s role in recent months, sometimes in jobs – only to return back to lobbying having smoothed their exit.
Take Crosby’s protege Isaac Levido, who segwayed from CT Group in January 2020 into his own company Fleetwood Strategy and then resigned from the company to join Downing Street’s Covid communications campaign in March. In April a £125,000 Covid contract was awarded to Fleetwood Strategy and in July Levido left Downing Street and returned to the company.
Such is the influence of these lobbyist confidants cum advisors to Boris Johnson that, away from the party and instruments of government, it was CT Group who were entrusted by the Prime Minister over the past few weeks to draw up a secret plan to pack the House of Lords with a swathe of crony appointees who would all be offered their peerages on the grounds of yet another quid pro quo – a signed commitment to vote loyally for the Government on demand.
The scandalous ‘Project Homer’, leaked by Sarawak Report, was a CT Group crafted plot to hijack the independence of the Upper House under the guise of ‘levelling up’ representations from the regions.
The lobbying Commissioner ought launch a full enquiry into CT Group’s clients and its finances. There should be a forensic scrutiny as to whether secret third parties were in fact funding CT Group’s staff members work for Boris Johnson and whether they are being paid for any of their political services in this country from abroad, which is also illegal in the UK.
What motive might such third parties have? Might Boris Johnson have later appointed them to be Lords or offered some other incentive as yet unknown?
These are clear possibilities given the patterns of behaviour that have already been displayed by the parties concerned and the system needs exposure and reform.
As for the Venezuelan Mr Herrera-Velutini newly removed to London. Having employed the CT Group it was clearly but a small step to engage with the Tory Party Chairman, Ben Elliot, by hiring his companies and pouring in money to the Conservative party coffers and then the Royal Jubilee.
So, Mr Herrera Velutini is plainly not a man to do something for nothing, what was he expecting in return this time?
This was how he had threatened the Puerto Rican Governor’s aid the day before CT Group flew to meet her in January 2020, saying that unless the financial regulator was sacked first the meeting would not happen and CT Group’s election support would be cancelled:
“We need to confirm the meeting since we are 5 people crossing the Atlantic to meet her and we also need her support for the OCIF situation that can no longer wait!! Please talk to the Governor if necessary but we should not spend money, Time and Effort in people that do not need our help!! Best Regards” [text from Julio Herrera-Velutini]
The Governor complied and sacked the OCIF Commissioner just hours before the meeting.
So, has there been any quid pro quo from the Conservative party in return for the over half million pounds accepted from this foreign national through the dodgy loophole of a non-profit making UK registered company? We have a right to know.