Banks Accuses U.K. Lawmakers of `Witch Hunt' to Undermine Brexit

(Bloomberg) -- Arron Banks, one of the self-described “bad boys of Brexit,” said he has no business interests in Russia and there was no evidence of a conspiracy connected to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

At a contentious Parliament hearing on Tuesday, Banks -- whose financial contributions to the Leave.EU campaign are being investigated by the Electoral Commission -- struck a defiant tone. He accused the select committee investigating fake news in British politics of a “witch hunt” and siding with anti-Brexit campaigners seeking a second ballot on EU membership.

“I’m frankly sick and tired of this,” Banks said, a millionaire insurance entrepreneur. “The reason I went into the referendum was I have a different version of what the future of this country is. I respect your right to disagree with that and I know that you’re all Remainers, you have a vested interest in trying to discredit the Brexit campaign.”

The combative testimony comes at an awkward time for the government as it engages in last-gasp efforts to persuade wavering Conservative Party lawmakers not to rebel against its key Brexit legislation in votes on Tuesday and Wednesday. Prime Minister Theresa May regularly accuses Russia of meddling in foreign elections, but never includes the 2016 Brexit referendum -- in part to avoid exacerbating deep divisions in the party on leaving the EU.

The committee’s latest skirmish with Banks comes after he told the Sunday Times he’d met with Russia’s ambassador to Britain as well as other Russian officials on two occasions beyond the single session he’d previously disclosed. One meeting was in November 2016, three days after Banks met newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump.

‘Sense of Humor’

The newspaper reported Banks traveled to Moscow at the height of the Brexit campaign, and that he was offered a business deal involving six Russian goldmines. Banks said he never entered into the deal.

He did acknowledge the meetings, but denied traveling to Moscow in 2016 as the Times reported. His only trips to Russia were in October 2014 and March 2015, he said.

Andy Wigmore, communications director on the Leave.EU campaign who gave evidence alongside Banks, said he often “teased journalists asking where Arron was by answering that he was in Moscow.”

“You have to have a sense of humor,” Banks said.

‘Evil Genius’

The committee that questioned Banks is also investigating Cambridge Analytica, the data company which reaches voters with hyper-targeting messaging, including on Facebook. The company filed for bankruptcy as the scandal over its work on the Trump campaign caused it to lose “virtually all” of its customers and suppliers.

Banks previously said Cambridge Analytica also worked on the Brexit campaign and that Leave.EU submitted documents about the work to U.K. election regulators. But Alexander Nix, the company’s chief executive officer, later told lawmakers the company never did any work, “paid or unpaid,” for Leave.EU, and Banks said the same on Tuesday.

Banks said he and Wigmore had overstated the role of data and artificial intelligence in the campaign in part to reflect its “disruptive” nature and their role as underdogs.

“You have to take a slight pinch of salt because we were running a campaign deliberately aimed at making fun of people,” Banks said. “I like to think I’m an evil genius with a white cat controlling the whole of Western democracy, but that’s clearly nonsense.”

Commission Fine

The Electoral Commission began an investigation into Leave.EU and Banks after lawmakers called for a probe into whether “dark money” played a role in the EU referendum.

Banks gave three loans to the Leave.EU campaign totaling 6 million pounds ($8 million), according to the commission. Better for the Country Ltd., an entity where Banks is a director, also donated 2.4 million pounds.

The commission fined Leave.EU over its funding and spending during the campaign, and said it didn’t “correctly report” the contributions from Banks. He told lawmakers Tuesday Leave.EU had appealed the decision.

Having projected the campaign he helped fund as an agent provocateur, Banks abruptly ended the hearing after the expected three hours, complaining he was late for a lunch appointment.

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