(Bloomberg) -- Cambridge Analytica, the Trump-campaign data firm embroiled in scandal over its misuse of Facebook accounts, suspended Chief Executive Officer Alexander Nix after he was filmed bragging about dirty tricks. But the business’s ties to Nix and dubious tactics run deep.
He retains a large ownership stake in Cambridge Analytica’s affiliated companies, and many of its top executives share his history of questionable campaign techniques. Nix remains a director and retains partial ownership of Cambridge Analytica’s British affiliate, SCL Group, which continues to work on political campaigns around the world and for governments. It signed a contract with the U.S. State Department last week.
SCL also has deep ties to the U.K.’s Conservative Party, forcing Prime Minister Theresa May to distance her party from the firm. British lawmakers are calling for an investigation into SCL’s activities and why the Ministry of Defense granted the company access to secret government documents.
The company said bribes and fake IDs “do not represent the values or operations of the firm” and Nix denies he engaged in such activities.
Cambridge Analytica and SCL share a London office and many staff members. Receptionists say “Cambridge Analytica” when answering calls to SCL’s London phone number. Cambridge Analytica also takes credit on its website for many of SCL’s political campaigns.
In an interview with Bloomberg last year, Nix said the two companies overlap and share methodology and data analytics. But even he seemed at a loss to define the border between them. “There’s a relationship there,” Nix said, adding when pressed: “It’s just not clear what the relationship is.” Nix, with his mother and sister, still owns roughly 25 percent of SCL Group, according to company records.
Neither Cambridge Analytica nor SCL returned calls seeking comment for this story.
Cambridge Analytica is partly owned by the family of hedge-fund chief Robert Mercer, a big donor and supporter of President Donald Trump, but Nix’s ties to the family go far beyond that link. Earlier this year, Nix joined other SCL colleagues on the board of a new company, Emerdata Ltd., which shares an address with SCL. This month, Mercer’s daughters Rebekah and Jennifer joined Emerdata’s board, according to Companies House, a British government website.
Other Emerdata directors include Johnson Ko Chun Shun, deputy chairman of Hong Kong-based Frontier Services Group, which is chaired by Blackwater Security Consulting founder and Trump backer Erik Prince. Also on the board is Cheng Peng, whose address is the same as Luk Fook Financial Services, the parent company of the firm that helped Frontier place new shares last year.
Emerdata was set up in 2017 by Julian Wheatland, the chairman of SCL, and Alex Tayler, Cambridge Analytica’s chief data officer, who was appointed to replace Nix as CEO while the company conducts its investigation. Tayler and Wheatland resigned from Emerdata in January.
Tayler, who earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from University of Cambridge, worked side-by-side with Nix on Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
In an interview last year, Tayler told Bloomberg that Cambridge Analytica helped the campaign predict rural-voter turnout and target messages.
“The methodology is about listening to your audience through large-scale polling and research married with data about those individuals that you acquired from different sources,” he said. He said the company ran a weekly “tracker poll” in every U.S. state that allowed the Trump campaign to gauge how its message was resonating and then shift resources accordingly.
Previously, SCL worked on hundreds of election campaigns around the world, from the Caribbean to Latvia and Nigeria, where it sometimes engaged in questionable tactics, such as discouraging opposition voters, according to the company’s sales documents. Nix denies that SCL has ever “undertaken any campaign to discourage voting or undermine the democratic process.”
Mark Turnbull, managing director of Cambridge Analytica’s political arm, remains at the company after being caught on camera talking about how the firm could push out damaging material on an opponent through social media without leaving a trace.
Into The Bloodstream
“We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again,” he was filmed telling an undercover reporter posing as a potential client from Sri Lanka.
Turnbull joined Cambridge Analytica and SCL in May 2016 to work on election campaigns. He’d spent 16 years at Bell Pottinger, the London public-relations firm, where he focused on “stabilisation, counter-radicalisation and democratic reform in zones of conflict” according to his LinkedIn profile.
Among Turnbull’s jobs at Bell Pottinger was overseeing the company’s activities in Iraq. Bell Pottinger worked on propaganda campaigns for the U.S. and British Coalition Provisional Authority in the wake of the U.S. invasion in 2003 and later had a contract with the U.S. military. The firm played a key role in helping the campaigns of Iraqi political candidates favored by the U.S. and British. Later, it worked to combat Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Bell Pottinger’s tactics included producing phony television news reports as well as fake terrorist propaganda videos containing computer code that allowed Western intelligence agencies to track anyone who watched, according to a 2016 report from the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit reporting organization.
The man who awarded Turnbull’s Bell Pottinger unit its first Iraq contract was Ian Tunnicliffe, then a British colonel who was running strategic communications for the U.K. defense ministry. Tunnicliffe, now retired, has been a member of SCL’s advisory board. He didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.
SCL also stoked ethnic tensions in Eastern Europe and sprayed fake graffiti in the Caribbean, according to the firm’s own sales documents. Its defense business claims in pitch documents to have worked for clients as wide-ranging as the Libyan National Transitional Council, NATO and the U.K. Foreign Office. It says it worked in Pakistan for the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Pacific Command in India on countering radicalization.
SCL recently signed a contract with the U.S. State Department for market research and public-opinion polling, according to a federal procurement database. The one-year contract, signed last week, is worth $496,232, according to the database.
The firm also has deep ties to the British defense establishment and Conservative Party. Its first chairman was Geoffrey Pattie, a defense minister under Margaret Thatcher. In addition to Tunnicliffe, the advisory board has included retired Rear Admiral John Tolhurst and Ivar Mountbatten, the great-nephew of Louis Mountbatten, the military hero and Queen Elizabeth’s cousin. Jonathan Marland, a former Conservative Party treasurer who served as a minister for business under former Prime Minister David Cameron, is a shareholder.
Marland told the Guardian newspaper he hadn’t had a role in running SCL following his initial investment and had refused requests to introduce the firm to Conservative Party officials.
Roger Gabb, a former British Army officer who later made his fortune as a wine distributor and wholesaler, is also a major SCL shareholder. A founding director who, with his family, still controls about 25 percent of the firm’s shares, Gabb has also been active in the Conservative Party and the campaign for the U.K. to leave the European Union. He donated 500,000 pounds ($705,300) to the party in 2006. In 2016, he was fined 1,000 pounds by the U.K.’s Electoral Commission for failing to disclose that he had helped purchase local newspaper advertisements supporting the leave side in the Brexit referendum.
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