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Tory fundraising machine to come under scrutiny in UK court case

Conservative co-chair Ben Elliot’s fundraising operation is to come under scrutiny in the High Court in London as a major party donor takes legal action against a former Tory MP who raised questions about the origins of his wealth.

Mohamed Amersi, a longstanding client of Elliot’s Quintessentially lifestyle service for the super-rich who has, with his partner, given £750,000 to the Conservatives, is pressing ahead with legal action despite claims from MPs that he is using the courts to “bully” his opponent.

Elliot’s role in the bitter party feud will feature in a four-day trial of Amersi’s data protection claim due around the end of March, legal filings seen by the Financial Times indicate.

A UK citizen born in Kenya, Amersi describes himself as “a renowned global communications entrepreneur, philanthropist and thought leader”, with projects ranging from tackling jihadism to promoting “inclusive capitalism”. His Tory donations have bought him access to Boris Johnson and a place in the party’s Leaders Group, whose members enjoy monthly lunches with ministers.

In June last year Amersi began data protection proceedings against Charlotte Leslie, a former MP who runs the Conservative Middle East Council, a body that helps maintain Tory relationships in the region. After discovering that Amersi was planning to set up a rival group, Leslie wrote memos on his background that she sent around the end of 2020 to CMEC’s honorary president, the Tory grandee Sir Nicholas Soames, who dispatched them on to Elliot. As party co-chair, Elliot oversees donations.

Charlotte Leslie, a former Tory MP, wrote memos on Amersi’s background that included references to his past business dealings in the former Soviet Union © Ben Cawthra/Shutterstock

Leslie’s memos included references to Amersi’s past business dealings in the former Soviet Union. The FT last year revealed that in 2005 Amersi made $4mn cutting a Russian telecoms deal for a Luxembourg business belonging to a group of companies that a Swiss tribunal later found to be secretly owned by Leonid Reiman, then a minister in Vladimir Putin’s regime. Amersi has said he was unaware at the time of allegations that Reiman owned the company.

In October, the Pandora Papers leak showed Amersi also played a role in a 2010 Uzbekistan telecoms deal that US prosecutors went on to expose as being part of a scheme by the Swedish group TeliaSonera to bribe the daughter of the then president of the central Asian country. Amersi has said he did not knowingly facilitate any corrupt payments by TeliaSonera.

In another deal involving a powerful figure from the former Soviet Union, Amersi has confirmed to the FT that he made $1.5mn in 2004 buying and selling on a Moscow telecoms venture called Komet that was backed by an ex-Russian general. The general, Alexander Ivanov, went on to supply surveillance technology used by Russian intelligence. Amersi’s lawyers said he “has never met general Ivanov, nor has he had any contact or dealings with him” before, during or after the Komet deal.

After he made his millions, Amersi became a client of Quintessentially, the “concierge” service that Elliot has said relies on his talent for “knowing the right people to contact for the right favour”. In 2013 Elliot arranged for his aunt, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and her husband, Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, to dine with Amersi at a royal Scottish mansion.

Amersi began donating to the Conservatives in 2018 when Theresa May was prime minister. He continued after Johnson succeeded her in 2019 and named Elliot as Conservative co-chair. In January last year, shortly after Elliot received Leslie’s memos raising questions about Amersi’s past, the Conservatives accepted a further £50,000 from Amersi.

When Amersi obtained copies of Leslie’s memos, he retained top London “reputation management” lawyers, first at Mishcon de Reya, then at Carter-Ruck. By July last year, he told the FT he had spent £300,000 on legal fees. He said of Leslie: “How dare she insult me?”

In his High Court claim against Leslie and CMEC, Amersi said she obtained “large quantities” of his personal data from her “contacts” as well as open sources. She used this data, added the claim, to write memos on Amersi’s national and ethnic background, his family, and his charitable and business dealings, because she “falsely” believed she should warn those associating with him that doing so would be damaging for the Conservatives and the country.

Among Amersi’s demands is that Leslie reveal the identities of her sources and of all those who received her memos including, according to a filing by his lawyers at a November court hearing, UK “national security officials”.

The judge at the November hearing, Mrs Justice Tipples, ruled that Amersi had “sought to have his cake and eat it” by using an incorrect legal procedure to seek a swift decision. She ordered him to pay 65 per cent of Leslie’s costs and sent the case for a full trial.

The particulars of the claim that Amersi’s lawyers have since filed mention Elliot by name, describing emails between Leslie and Soames regarding the proposed transmission by Soames of information about Amersi to Elliot.

Ben Elliot, co-chair of the Conservative party, pictured in October 2021Conservative party co-chair Ben Elliot’s role in the bitter feud will feature in the four-day trial of Amersi’s data protection claim due around the end of March, legal filings seen by the FT indicate © James Veysey/Shutterstock

Leslie has accused Elliot of blurring the line between his commercial interests and political position by intervening in the dispute without disclosing that Amersi was his private client at Quintessentially. Labour has called on Johnson to sack Elliot over his alleged conflict of interest but the prime minister has stood by his fellow Old Etonian, who has turbocharged Tory fundraising.

In a January parliamentary debate on the use of so-called lawfare by the rich to stifle scrutiny, the former Conservative minister David Davis claimed “Amersi has used his wealth and influence to try to bully Charlotte Leslie into silence”.

Amersi told the FT: “I am not a bully. I am defending my reputation, which she has sullied.” Late in 2021, he commenced a defamation action against Leslie.

Leslie, an amateur boxer, maintains she has acted in the public interest and fulfilled her obligations under data protection law. She accuses Amersi of using a “legal sledgehammer” against her.

Julian Lewis, the Conservative MP who chairs parliament’s intelligence and security committee, said in the same parliamentary debate with Davis: “The fact is that [Leslie] was trying to see whether the money that was being offered by somebody who wanted to take over a political organisation within the Conservative party was clean or dirty. As a result of her doing her duty, she is threatened with financial ruin.” Amersi said Leslie saw his new organisation as a threat and wanted to protect her own interests.

When Amersi started donating to the Conservatives, a party official spent 30 minutes asking him “general questions” about his background and how he made his money, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation. “It was not intrusive, it was friendly,” added the person. Through his lawyers, Amersi said the Tories carried out due diligence that was updated when he made further donations and which, to the best of his knowledge, did not raise any concerns.

A Conservative spokesperson did not answer questions about the party’s vetting of Amersi but said: “Donations to the Conservative party are received in good faith, after appropriate due diligence, from permissible sources. Donations are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law.” Elliot declined to comment.

Additional reporting by Jim Pickard in London and Max Seddon in Moscow

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