A British millionaire who helped bankroll the Brexit campaign played down his connections with Russian officials today, amid lingering concerns Moscow targeted the divisive 2016 referendum with so-called fake news.
Arron Banks, the outspoken founder of the Leave.eu campaign, faced nearly three hours of questioning by British lawmakers probing the spread of misinformation online. It followed weekend newspaper reports that the insurance industry millionaire was offered business deals in Russia and held previously undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador.
Critics contend Banks, who donated nearly USD 13.4 million to the pro-Brexit campaign, could have been influenced or used by the Kremlin, which was eager to break up the EU.
But the 52-year-old called the furore around his ties to Russia "a full-scale witch-hunt". He told MPs he held two lunches with London envoy Alexander Yakovenko, while a possible business deal involving six gold mines "fizzled out".
"That's the extent of it," he told the parliamentary hearing.
"I don't regard this... as constant contact with the Russians. It wasn't.
Banks denied travelling to Russia at that time.
"If anyone's got evidence I was in Moscow please bring it forward," he said. Banks confirmed reports he gave phone numbers for Donald Trump's transition team to Russian officials, after he had met with the US president-elect in November 2016 in New York.
But he denied passing on other material.
"I can categorically say no, we didn't," Banks said. "I don't have access to political information." Andy Wigmore, a former British diplomat and close associate of Banks who also appeared at the hearing, said Yakovenko simply "couldn't believe Trump had won" and was scrambling for contacts.
Both Banks and Wigmore insisted they had not tried to conceal contact with Russians and "briefed the American security services on everything that transpired." "If I was intent on hiding my involvement with the Russians, I did a pretty bad job of that," Banks said.
"(They) themselves put on the record that they frequently lie, exaggerate, misspeak and misunderstand," he said.
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