While the American news media have been consumed with the caravan, the midterm elections, the post-midterm post mortems, and the latest drama at the Justice Department (the caravan, not surprisingly, has suddenly ceased to be news), across the Atlantic, a different sort of scandal was making headlines. On Tuesday, Britain’s Information Commissioner’s Office found that Cambridge Analytica, the political-consulting firm established by right-wing activist Steve Bannon and backed by billionaire Robert Mercer, violated British law when it harvested data from up to 87 million Facebook users to help elect Donald Trump. The firm would have faced a substantial fine, had it not already declared bankruptcy and shut down last May.
Still, the fallout is only just beginning. The I.C.O., which had a broad mandate to investigate the use of data analytics for political purposes, ruled that Eldon Insurance, a firm owned by Brexit champion Arron Banks, also broke British law when it sent a Leave.EU newsletter to Eldon clients, and more than a million e-mails to Leave.EU supporters containing Eldon Insurance marketing. Banks has said he gave £8 million ($10.4 million) to the Nigel Farage–run Leave.EU, thought to be the largest political donation in British history. While Eldon Insurance and Leave.EU face fines of £135,000 (roughly $177,000) for the privacy breaches, the report dismissed speculation that Leave.EU covertly worked with Cambridge Analytica during the referendum campaign. Such a deal was discussed but not brokered, it concluded.
The I.C.O. report may be only the beginning of Banks’s troubles. On Saturday, The Observer and OpenDemocracy both reported on allegations by employees at Eldon and another Banks-run company, Rock Services, that they had been pressured to work on Leave.EU and other like-minded initiatives, despite Banks’s prior testimony that he kept his pro-Brexit campaigning and his business operations distinct. Under British electoral law, if campaigns coordinate, they must declare their spending together. According to a March 2016 e-mail chain leaked to The Observer, however, it appears that employees at both companies worked on various aspects of the Leave.EU campaign, including advertisements depicting refugees in a negative light. “I made it absolutely clear that I didn’t want to work on the political stuff,” one former Eldon worker told the paper. “I wasn’t comfortable with it. I didn’t want to be complicit in it. There were quite a lot of spats about it. People were frozen out if they refused to work on it.” Another said, “Some of these images were really horrible, the immigrants and refugee stuff. But there were always these urgent requests coming in. You were told to stop what you were doing and do something for Leave.EU.”
Damian Collins, the chairman of Parliament’s fake-news inquiry, told The Observer, “If Eldon employees were being paid to work on the campaign during the regulated period, it should have been a declared expense. We asked him directly if he’d used his insurance employees to work on the campaigns and he said they didn’t.” As OpenDemocracy makes clear in a long post documenting Banks’s past statements, if these allegations are true, Banks may have broken the law by presenting false evidence to a select committee—theoretically punishable by imprisonment or a substantial fine, if Parliament should decide to press the issue. (Banks continues to deny any illicit relationship between his political and business dealings.)
Both reports were released just days after the Electoral Commission concluded that, following a yearlong investigation, it suspected some of the funds Banks donated to the unofficial Leave.EU campaign came from an offshore company. Announcing a “number of criminal offenses” may have been committed, the National Crime Agency is now looking into multiple accusations of criminal wrongdoing. Banks, whose net worth has been the subject of dispute, also faces another allegation: that his unprecedented donation was funded by foreign—namely Russian—interests. Indeed, Banks originally claimed to have met with Alexander Yakovenko, Russian ambassador to the U.K., just once, for a “boozy six-hour lunch.” As the number of meetings and details mounted, it emerged that Russian contacts had offered the businessman several lucrative deals. According to an uncovered cache of e-mails, Banks was intrigued. “I am very bullish on gold so keen to have a look,” he reportedly wrote to Russian businessman Siman Povarenkin. Banks denied that he participated in any deal. “The idea that things were dangled as some sort of carrots for me to be involved with the Russians is very far-fetched,” he told The New York Times. “I wonder what the Russians wanted from me?” Despite Banks’s protestations, the tangled links between him, Farage, Trumpworld, and Russia have piqued the interest of special prosecutor Robert Mueller. (In a statement saying he welcomes an investigation by the National Crime Agency, Banks added: “Isn’t it funny that none of the financial contributions made by George Soros to British political campaigns are ever subject to any level of scrutiny by the Electoral Commission despite his being a foreign national.”)
Banks’s responses to the ongoing allegations have veered between savagery and mockery. When Carole Cadwalladr, who has broken the majority of this unfolding story, first started reporting on Brexit financing, she writes, Banks agreed to meet her: “You’re looking for a smoking gun, but there’s a smoking gun on every table!” he said. “And no one cares. No one cares!” As the net tightened, however, he became more bombastic, and more misogynistic, labeling Cadwalladr “a mad cat lady, a loony, a bitter ‘Remoaner,’ a lone conspiracy theorist, an enemy of the people,” and posting a video that shows her likeness beaten and being threatened with a gun to the soundtrack of the Russian national anthem.
If this sounds familiar, so too does the stance of Banks’s defenders, who portray him as a brilliant, bullish non-conformist. But of course, the multiple investigators eyeing Banks will have the last word. In the meantime, there is the question of whether further evidence of Brexit-related skulduggery could fuel the push for a second referendum. (“Should Brexit be halted for Arron Banks investigation?” asks The Week.) As lawmakers work to siphon the taint of alleged criminality from Britain’s democratic processes, Banks remains a stark reminder of Britain’s political divisions. “We may never know whether individuals were unknowingly influenced to vote a certain way in either the U.K. E.U. referendum or the U.S. election campaigns,” the I.C.O. commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, writes. “But we do know that personal privacy rights have been compromised by a number of players and that the digital electoral ecosystem needs reform.”