June 10, 2018 / 1:32 PM / 14 days ago

Brexit campaigner Banks says story on Russian ties 'absolute garbage'

LONDON (Reuters) - Arron Banks, a British businessman who bankrolled one of the main campaigns for Brexit, hit back on Sunday after a report said his links with Russia went further and deeper than he had previously disclosed, saying he was a victim of a “witch hunt”.

FILE PHOTO: British businessman Arron Banks, who has funded the Leave.EU campaign, is seen during the opening day of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) annual conference at Doncaster Racecourse in Doncaster, northern Britain September 25, 2015. REUTERS/Andrew Yates/File Photo

Britain has said it had not seen evidence of Russian interference in its votes, but lawmakers are investigating whether the country tried to influence public opinion before the EU referendum as part of a broader inquiry into “fake news”.

Banks said he would tell a committee of lawmakers on Tuesday about his connections with multiple countries during the referendum campaign.

“It wasn’t just the Russians: we met all sorts of nationalities, we also briefed the State Department in Washington, we also met with the top embassy officials in London,” he told Reuters.

“So if we are Russian spies, we must be American spies too.”

The Sunday Times, citing emails it received from a journalist who worked with Banks on a book, said that Banks and his associate Andy Wigmore had repeated contact with Russian officials both before and after the referendum campaign.

Banks had previously claimed in a book to have had only one meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s envoy in London, Alexander Yakovenko, in September 2015, but the newspaper said there were at least two further meetings.

The newspaper also said Yakovenko proposed that Banks and Wigmore become involved in a business deal involving Russian gold mines. Banks said he didn’t profit from any business deals because he never pursued any.

“I have never seen such a conflated story in all my life,” Banks said.

“Yeah, we had two lunches with the Russian ambassador and passed on a business contact. So what?”

When asked if he ever received Russian money or assistance for Brexit, Banks laughed: “No, of course not. You know if I have, I’m still waiting for the cheque.

“This is just complete absolute garbage – it is like the Salem witch hunt. They just keep on screaming ‘witch’, ‘witch’.”

RIGHT TO KNOW

Banks said late on Saturday that he and Wigmore would appear before Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee’s fake news inquiry, reversing a decision to pull out two days ago.

“We look forward to seeing @DamianCollins & the committee as originally planned,” he said on Twitter.

Collins, a member of the ruling Conservatives who chairs the committee, said the public had a right to know about the relationship between the biggest funder of the Leave campaign and Russia.

“It is big news: I think it is very relevant,” he told BBC television.

“If the Russian government is seeking to develop relationships with prominent people like Arron Banks (...) we have a right to know what the level of that contact was.”

Supporters of Brexit say pro-Europeans are trying to undermine the referendum result with baseless allegations of Russian involvement so that they can push for a rerun of the vote. Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement.

Banks co-founded the Leave.EU campaign that is credited with mobilizing grassroots support for Brexit. Wigmore did not answer requests for comment.

Banks will appear before lawmakers in a critical week for the government’s Brexit strategy, with Prime Minister Theresa May facing a series of key votes that could see a rebellion by those who want to retain closer ties with the EU.

May’s Brexit plan will begin its most severe test to date on June 12 when she asks her divided Conservatives to overturn changes made to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill by parliament’s upper chamber.

Two Conservative lawmakers from opposites side of the Brexit divide — the pro-Remain former home secretary Amber Rudd and the leading Brexit supporter and former party leader Iain Duncan Smith — joined together on Sunday to urge support for May.

“When it comes to delivering the legislation necessary to make Brexit a smooth and orderly process, we both agree that every Conservative should march in lockstep behind the Prime Minister as she delivers on the vote,” they said in an article in the Sunday Telegraph.

Editing by Keith Weir and Alexandra Hudson

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