Bill Browder: The fund manager who became a crusader against Putin

Posted by Red Notice
on 02 Feb 2015 | 0 comments
Tagged in: Red Notice, Sergei Magnitsky

Moneyweek, 2nd February 2015

Bill Browder’s chilling memoir is anything but fantasy

Much of Bill Browder’s new book, Red Notice, “reads like a detective novel”, says Luke Harding in The Guardian. But while stranger than fiction in many parts, his chilling memoir is anything but fantasy. The fund manager, who reinvented himself as an anti-Putin campaigner following the death of his lawyer in a Russian jail, is on permanent alert for danger.

“They [the Kremlin] threatened to kill me. It’s pretty straightforward,” he says. Indeed, the book is “a kind of macabre insurance policy”. As Browder writes in the final chapter: “If I’m killed, you will know who did it. When my enemies read this book, they will know that you know.”

American-born Browder, who now lives in London, is one of Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critics. For over a decade he lived in Moscow, running Hermitage Capital Management, with $4.5bn in assets at its peak. “Initially, he was a fan of Putin’s”: they seemed to share the same anti-corruption agenda. But in 2005 he was abruptly deported and declared a threat to national security. Soon after, a corrupt group of officials expropriated his fund and used it to make a fraudulent tax claim, stealing $230m.

Browder hired a lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, to uncover the money trail and prepare a case. Magnitsky was arrested and spent a year in jail before allegedly being beaten to death in 2009. The incident had a transforming effect on Browder (see below). “A young man whom I was responsible for died in the most horrific way because he worked for me.”

Browder’s links with Russia are convoluted and deep, says The New Yorker. His grandfather, Earl Browder, was the head of the US Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s and had spent several years in the Soviet Union. His grandmother was a Russian. Young Bill “rebelled” against his leftish roots “by earning an MBA at Stanford and entering business”. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 galvanised him.

“I had this epiphany that if my grandfather was the largest communist in America, I was going to be the largest capitalist in eastern Europe.” He moved to London and, after stints at Boston Consulting and Salomon Brothers (as well as a period working on a fund for media mogul Robert Maxwell), he formed Hermitage in 1996, with backing from the Lebanese-Brazilian banker Edmond Safra.

Hermitage did very well out of Russia’s Wild East and Browder became “an increasingly vocal shareholder activist”, denouncing the corruption and criminality in Russian industry. In 2003 he even welcomed the arrest of one of the richest oligarchs, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, says the FT.

“When it became clear he wasn’t in jail because he was an oligarch, but because he challenged the president, my view started to change,” Browder says. He realised that Putin and his henchmen had not come to clean up Russia,but to build a criminal enterprise of their own. His crusade continues. “It is hard to imagine him giving up until the Russian leader leaves office.”

Battling Putin’s Russia in the courts

Bill Browder’s battle against Vladimir Putin – like many of those waged by Russian dissidents – has taken shape in courtrooms, says Daniel Ben-Ami in the FT. In 2012 he persuaded the US Congress to pass a bill to bar those allegedly responsible for Sergei Magnitsky’s death from entry to America, or use of its banking system. His aim was to persuade the British and EU governments to follow suit. Last year the Russian authorities retaliated, says Luke Harding in The Guardian.

A Moscow court sentenced Browder in absentia to nine years in jail for tax evasion “and, bizarrely, ‘convicted’ the already-dead Magnitsky” too. The Kremlin then sent a Red Notice warrant to Interpol demanding Browder’s extradition. “Interpol refused, but Moscow is currently putting together a third extradition bid.”

The pursuit of Browder and “Magnitsky’s ghost” didn’t end there, says Nick Cohen in The Observer. In his testimony, Magnitsky had claimed that Major Pavel Karpov, a police officer at the Russian Interior Ministry, was one of the officers involved in the $230m con. Last year Karpov issued a writ for libel against Browder and Hermitage in London for repeating the allegation.

He chose his destination well. The “town called sue” is the “world’s favourite place for libel tourists”. Fortunately for those who recoil at the prospect of English law being used to defend “the Kremlin Kleptocracy”, the judge threw out the case.

“My relationship with the world used to be about how much money I made or lost,” Browder told Businessweek in 2011. “Now it’s more about humanity.” But when he’s not fighting Russian corruption or penning his memoirs, Putin’s self-styled “No. 1 enemy” still finds time for the money game, says Ben-Ami. Having managed to get most of Hermitage’s assets out of Russia in 2005, Browder now runs it as “a general emerging-markets specialist”.

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