James W. Carden
James W. Carden is a contributing writer at The Nation and the executive editor for the American Committee for East-West Accord.
Hermitage Capital CEO William Browder is sworn in before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election on Capitol Hill last July. (Reuters / Yuri Gripas)
Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson painted a disturbing portrait of hedge-fund manager William Browder.
On Tuesday, California Senator Dianne Feinstein made public a transcript of Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee this past August.
While her decision to release the transcript outraged some Republicans, Feinstein, the committee’s ranking member, claimed she was compelled to release the testimony because "The innuendo and misinformation circulating about the transcript are part of a deeply troubling effort to undermine the investigation into potential collusion and obstruction of justice. The only way to set the record straight is to make the transcript public.”
The media immediately seized upon Simpson’s claim that the FBI had a mole inside the Trump campaign. An additional claim, made by Simpson’s lawyer, that someone had been killed as a result of the Steele dossier also, rightfully, made headlines.
Yet beneath the sensational and salacious parts of Simpson’s testimony lies a largely unreported story regarding William Browder, the hedge-fund manager turned human-rights crusader and Kremlin critic.
Simpson’s testimony about what he discovered about Browder has gone largely unremarked upon. There was no mention of it in three leading US publications (The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Politico), despite the fact that Browder was mentioned no fewer than 50 times during the course of Simpson’s testimony.
The media’s silence regarding the parts of Simpson’s testimony pertaining to Browder is also interesting given that Browder has, for years now, been the media’s go-to Kremlin critic of choice, appearing regularly on CNN, CNBC, and MSNBC, where he is often promoted as "Putin’s Enemy #1.”
Simpson’s testimony regarding what his firm found out about Browder would seem particularly newsworthy because it speaks to Browder’s credibility as the principal architect of the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which arguably set off a chain of events that deepened the new cold war between the United States and Russia.
Indeed, Browder’s advocacy has long been championed by powerful supporters on Capitol Hill, such as Senators John McCain and Ben Cardin, who have praised Browder as "a strong advocate for anti-corruption efforts around the world” and a person on whom they have relied on for his "expertise and support” as they worked to pass the Magnitsky Act.
"Mr. Browder’s work,” said the senators, "has helped to remove corrupt actors from our financial system and enhance accountability measures with respect to the U.S. relationship with the Russian Federation.”
Some background regarding Simpson’s testimony is in order.
Briefly: In 2014 Fusion GPS was retained by the law firm Baker Hostetler, which was defending a Russian holding company, Prevezon, in a money-laundering suit filed by the US Justice Department. By October 2016, Browder’s Hermitage Capital, which had previously been represented by Baker Hostetler, successfully petitioned in US district court in Manhattan to remove Baker Hostetler from the Prevezon case.
According to Simpson’s testimony, the lawsuit against Prevezon was based on information provided to the DOJ by William Browder.
So Fusion was hired to assist Baker Hostetler with the pretrial process. Simpson testified, "my lane was research, discovery, William Browder’s business practices, his activities in Russia, his history of avoiding taxes.”
And what did Simpson find during the discovery process?
Simpson testified that in an attempt to document whether Browder’s hedge fund had a presence in the United States, Baker Hostetler subpoenaed his hedge fund. According to Simpson, Browder "then changed the hedge fund registration, took his name off, said it was on there by accident, it was a mistake, and said that he had no presence in the United States and that…he surrendered his citizenship in 1998 and moved outside the United States. That was around the time he started making all the money in Russia. So he’s never had to pay US taxes on his profits from his time in Russia.”
"In any case,” said Simpson "he said he never came to the United States, didn’t own any property here, didn’t do any business here, and therefore he was not required to participate in the US court system even though he admitted that he brought the case to the US Justice Department.”
Simpson testified that Browder "was willing to, you know, hand stuff off to the DOJ anonymously in the beginning and cause them to launch a court case against somebody, but he wasn’t interest[ed] in speaking under oath about, you know, why he did that, his own activities in Russia.”
"We found this,” said Simpson, "to be a frustrating and somewhat curious situation.”
But far from never coming to the United States, Simpson alleged that Browder "seemed to own a house in Aspen, Colorado, a very expensive mansion, over $10 million, which he had registered in the name of a shell company in a clear attempt to disguise the ownership of the property.”
When Simpson traveled to Aspen and attempted to serve Browder with a subpoena, Simpson testified that Browder simply "ran away. He dropped it on the ground and he ran away. He jumped in his car and went back to his mansion.”
In response, Browder wrote via Twitter this week that "Simpson forgot to mention in his testimony-that subpoena was quashed by the court. He also forgot to mention that I was scheduled to be a witness for the DOJ to prosecute accused Russian money launderers (his clients).”
That aside, it should be noted that was not the last time Browder took off and ran in the face of a subpoena. On February 3, 2015, Nicholas Casale, who was also working on behalf of Baker Hostetler, attempted to serve Browder with a subpoena as he left a taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Video taken by Casale Associates shows Browder bolting down 51st St. in Manhattan.
In his testimony, Simpson recounted his mounting suspicion that the carefully cultivated image of Browder as an anti-corruption crusader was perhaps something of a fiction.
Simpson testified that Browder’s "determined effort to avoid testifying under oath, including running away from subpoenas and changing—frequently changing lawyers and making lurid allegations against us, including that, you know, he thought we were KGB assassins in the parking lot of Aspen, Colorado, when we served the subpoena, all raised questions in my mind about why he was so determined to not have to answer questions under oath about things that happened in Russia.”
Interestingly, Simpson recalled that when he first met Browder, "I was working on a story about Vladimir Putin[’s] corruption and he lectured me about how have [sic]Vladimir Putin was not corrupt and how he was the best thing that ever happened to Russia.”
"This,” said Simpson, "made me more curious about the history of his activities in Russia and what that might tell me about corruption in Russia, and as part of the case we became curious about whether there was something that he was hiding about his activities in Russia.”
As indeed there seemed to be.
During the course of the pretrial discovery, Simpson alleges that he began to learn about Browder’s history of "tax avoidance in Russia and we began to deconstruct the way that his hedge fund structured its investments in Russia and, you know, we gradually accumulated through public records, not all from Russia, that he set up dozens of shell companies in Cyprus and other tax havens around the world to funnel money into Russia and to hold Russian securities.”
The pretrial discovery also found that Browder "set up shell companies inside of Russia in order to avoid paying taxes in Russia. In fact, William Browder famously said in 2005 at Davos everybody knows under Putin you have to pay your taxes, which is ironic because at the time he was being investigated for not paying taxes.”
Browder and his many supporters in Washington have tried to claim Simpson and Fusion GPS had targeted Browder in order to discredit his work on the Magnitsky Act. But Simpson’s work on the Prevezon case had nothing to do with Magnitsky or Browder’s tireless efforts to get the act through Congress.
Simpson actually noted that he personally "was extremely sympathetic for what happened to Sergei Magnitsky and I told him that myself and I tried to help him. It was only later,” after working on the Prevezon case, that Simpson "began to be curious and skeptical about William Browder’s activities and history in Russia.”
When you consider what he discovered, Simpson’s skepticism seems warranted. Yet the question remains as to why there has been a virtual media blackout regarding his testimony about Browder.
Given Browder’s prominence as a widely sought after commentator and his designation as a leading anti-corruption activist, surely his past business practices in Russia, as well as his questionable behavior relating to the Prevezon case, are worthy of some scrutiny.