Bill Browder, a US-born, UK-based businessman, says the war in Ukraine is sharpening the world’s focus on Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Suddenly the world is worried about Vladimir Putin’s evil,” he told correspondent Seth Doane.
But it has long been clear to Browder, even a Putin goal. It was while walking in a park in London that he received an alarming phone call: US intelligence had learned that Browder might be kidnapped and taken to Russia.
He remembered: “My safe world in London really evaporated.”
Browder’s decades-long odyssey with the highest levels of Russian power began after he moved to Russia in the 1990s to take advantage of privatization after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Browder’s Hermitage Fund quickly became the largest foreign investment fund in the country. They surveyed Russian companies, first to invest:
“What we discovered was that the oligarchs and corrupt officials who controlled these companies stole all the profits, all the assets, out of the companies,” Browder said. “And the only way I felt I could invest responsibly is if I could figure out how they stole and then try to stop them.”
“Not a way to make yourself very welcome in Russia?” asked Doane.
“Well, that was interesting, because at the beginning of this moment, Vladimir Putin was fighting with the same guys I was fighting with. But it turns out he was not trying to end the oligarch era; he just wanted to be the greatest oligarch himself. . “
Browder showed Doane charts setting up the web of complicated money laundering operations that they helped uncover. “The money flowed from the Russian treasury through Moldova, to Latvia and then to Switzerland,” Browder said. “The whole idea of money laundering is to make it so complicated that no one could effectively put together a chart like this.”
Doane asked: “It takes an investor who has moved to Russia to do this?”
“It takes an investment guy whose lawyer and friend were brutally murdered and who has made it his mission for the rest of his life to go after the killers to do this,” he replied.
The lawyer and friend was Sergei Magnitsky, who had investigated a tax evasion scheme on behalf of Browder. “My company paid taxes to the Russian government,” Browder said. “A bunch of Russian officials seized my documents and then organized an identity theft of my companies and then organized a $ 230 million tax refund of taxes that we paid back to the stolen companies so they could enjoy the money. Sergei was the person who found out about the $ 230 million tax rebate scam. ”
Magnitsky then testified before the Russian State Commission of Inquiry: “But five weeks after Sergei testified, the same officials he testified against arrested him in custody in Russia, where he was subsequently tortured to have his testimony taken. “
Sergei Magnitsky died in a Russian prison in 2009. He was 37 years old.
“Do you feel responsible for his death?” asked Doane.
“How do you relate to that?”
“I made a promise to his memory, to his family, to myself that I would spend all my time, all my energy and all my resources on going after the people who killed him, [to] make sure they faced justice, “Browder replied.
He lobbied for a landmark piece of legislation called the Magnitsky Act. It originally sanctioned people linked to tax fraud and the death of Sergei Magnitsky. The law was signed in 2012 and focused attention on the kind of corruption they had revealed. Some of the money from that tax scheme ended up in properties bought in London, New York and Dubai.
Browder’s quest for justice was the basis of a bestselling book, “Red Notice”. Now, out this week, is his latest, “Freezing Order” (published by Simon & Schuster, a division of Paramount Global that owns CBS). It is the tale of what happened next, a true story of “money laundering, murder and the survival of Vladimir Putin’s anger.”
Doane asked, “Does any of this sound like something from a mafia movie?”
“Vladimir Putin is the mafia boss,” Browder said. “All his ministers are, in fact, if you look at ‘The Sopranos,’ just like the New Jersey Mafia and the Brooklyn Mafia, the Philadelphia Mafia. They can all take as much money as they can steal, and they have to pay a tribute to the mafia boss, who is Vladimir Putin. “
Browder claims that some of the stolen $ 230 million ended up in the hands of Putin, a leader notorious for his shady wealth. The Russian president’s official salary is around $ 140,000 a year, which raises some obvious questions about his $ 1.4 billion residence, his $ 700 million yacht and his million-dollar watch collection.
Putin has long maintained that Sergei Magnitsky died of a heart attack. His dislike for Browder was evident at his joint presidential press conference in 2018 in Helsinki, when he suggested to US President Donald Trump that Moscow might be willing to “swap” 12 accused Russian military intelligence officers if the Trump administration would hand over Bill Browder to him.
“I was in shock,” Browder said.
He has successfully fought for other countries to pass the Magnitsky Act to target corrupt officials and human rights violators, and Browder is proud that it is now among the sanctions that have been used to punish Russia since its invasion of Ukraine.
“The story of Sergei Magnitsky is a small microcosm of what has now been multiplied by a million times,” he said. “The people of Ukraine bear the criminal burden of Vladimir Putin in the same way that we did in a very small way. And I feel crushed, because if people had listened more to what I said over the last ten years, we might not be in this situation. “
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History produced by Mark Hudspeth. Editor: Emanuele Secci.