A major Conservative donor received $4m from a company he knew to be secretly owned by a powerful Russian who was at the time a senior member of Vladimir Putin’s regime, according to three people with direct knowledge of his business dealings.
Although Mohamed Amersi has said that “not a penny that I earned in Russia . . . has even remotely come close to being invested in the UK political system”, these new claims raise questions about the origins of the fortune that has propelled him to a position of influence at Westminster.
A Kenya-born UK citizen, Amersi and his Russian partner Nadezhda Rodicheva have given £750,000 to the Tories since 2017. He intends to spend a further £250,000 a year on a new organisation to help run the party’s relationships in the Middle East, a plan he says he has discussed with prime minister Boris Johnson.
In 2005 Amersi worked on a deal in which a Luxembourg company called First National Holding acquired PeterStar, one of the biggest telecoms ventures in St Petersburg. First National Holding paid him $4m via a Cyprus company. The following year a Swiss arbitration tribunal found that Leonid Reiman, then Putin’s telecoms minister, secretly controlled the group of companies that included First National Holding. Some of the group’s assets had been misappropriated from the Russian state, the tribunal found.
Amersi has said he “wasn’t aware” that Reiman was First National Holding’s owner at the time the company paid him $4m. But James Hatt, a British veteran of Russian telecoms, recalls conversations that indicated to him Amersi did know.
Hatt had known Reiman since he was an official at the state telecoms company in 1990s St Petersburg, where Vladimir Putin, then-deputy mayor, was beginning his rise to power. He calls First National Holding the “mother lode” of Reiman’s secret telecoms empire.
First National Holding held a minority stake in PeterStar. The listed US group Metromedia held the majority. Hatt was running Metromedia’s international telecoms arm and developed a plan to take the company private. After working in Russian telecoms in the 1990s, Amersi was seeking to organise a telecoms fund. Hatt thought it could potentially finance his take-private plan. He recalls meeting Amersi in the second half of 2000 at his Park Avenue flat in Manhattan, “a rather dark apartment filled with very rich furnishings”.
“Mohamed understood a lot about Russian telecom,” Hatt said. “If we’re going to discuss British politics, we’re not going to spend a lot of time discussing who the prime minister is. We know who the prime minister is. And in the same way, that meeting with Mohamed to discuss telecoms in St Petersburg — you’re not going to spend a lot of time talking about whether or not Leonid [Reiman] owns First National Holding. Because you know he does.”
Asked why he believes Amersi knew of Reiman’s secret ownership, Hatt said they talked about how Reiman used frontmen to disguise his ownership of First National Holding.
Another person with knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be named, corroborated Hatt’s account. The take-private deal did not come to pass but five years later Amersi made his $4m helping First National Holding buy Metromedia out of PeterStar.
Amersi said of his meeting with Hatt: “I cannot speculate on what Mr Hatt may have known at the time but, for my part, it is untrue that I was aware of Mr Reiman’s concealed ownership of First National Holding, so I could not have possibly engaged in discussions about this.”
Amersi said that at the time of the PeterStar deal he believed First National Holding was owned by a Danish lawyer called Jeffrey Galmond. That is disputed by a third person who spoke to the Financial Times, who described meeting Amersi on a number of occasions before 2005.
Amersi was “keen to help” Reiman secure accounts at a Swiss bank for an offshore company, the person said, and was looking for “friendly bankers” Reiman could trust. The offshore company was formally owned by Galmond but Galmond was acting as a front for Reiman, the person recalled Amersi explaining. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that Amersi gave assurances that the paperwork showing Galmond as the purported owner was “watertight”.
Amersi disputed this account. He recalls once introducing Galmond to a bank or “wealth manager”. But he said: “It is complete nonsense that I said at these alleged ‘series of meetings’ that the companies were owned by Leonid Reiman and that Reiman was looking for ‘friendly bankers he could trust’.”
Reiman declined to comment. He has previously denied secretly owning Russian telecoms assets. Galmond still insists that he was their true owner.
In January 2005 — months before he made $4m from First National Holding — Amersi was appointed to the board of the Russian telecoms company MegaFon. A legal fight between Reiman’s faction and the oligarch Mikhail Fridman had broken out over a disputed MegaFon stake. It had led to news reports in the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times about allegations that Reiman secretly owned telecoms assets through First National Holding. Despite being on the board of the company at the centre of the fight, Amersi has said he was not aware even of rumours about Reiman’s hidden interests.
Amersi said he did serve as a messenger between Fridman and Galmond but “knew nothing” about Galmond being a front for Reiman. He also said he met Reiman himself to discuss the dispute but was unaware he had an interest in it beyond his role as Putin’s telecoms minister.
Amersi is now fighting a legal battle against a former Tory MP called Charlotte Leslie, which has cost him £300,000 in legal fees. Last year she wrote memos raising questions about his past business dealings after learning of his plans to start a rival to the Tory Middle East group she runs.
Two people with knowledge of the matter say Leslie was warned that she risks facing legal action by Fridman, the oligarch she had mentioned in the memos she wrote on Amersi.
But Fridman rejected any suggestion that he had sanctioned any warning that he would bring legal action against Leslie. His spokesperson said: “Mr Fridman has had no relationship with Mr Amersi for 15 years. He was not aware of these allegations, finds them deeply offensive and categorically denies any involvement in any threats of legal action against Ms Leslie.”
The origin of the warning is unclear. Amersi said he had told Lord David Hunt, the Tory peer seeking to mediate in the dispute: “It’s much better to keep third parties out of all this correspondence and out of the memos that Charlotte is writing because it will invite trouble.”
But describing to the FT his conversation with Hunt, Amersi added: “I’m not going to lie to you, I’m not going to make something up. What I’m saying to you is, I never used the word ‘Fridman’.” Amersi’s lawyers at Carter Ruck said any suggestion that Amersi had threatened that Fridman might take legal action against Leslie would be false and defamatory of their client.
Lord Hunt said: “Discussions with a mediator are not only confidential but they are privileged.”
Asked whether she had received such a warning, Leslie said: “We would very much like to help you in confirming the suggestions you are making. However, we have been participating in a quasi-legal process which confers on its participants a duty of confidentiality.”
The Conservatives did not comment on the dispute but said: “Donations to the Conservative party are received in good faith. They are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law.”