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World Fears of Russian Brexit meddling prompt probe of British businessman Arron Banks

This file photo taken on Nov. 18, 2015, shows British businessman Arron Banks taking part in a news conference by the Leave.EU campaign group in central London.

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

British election officials have launched an investigation into a leading figure in the Brexit campaign amid growing concern that Russia interfered in last year's EU referendum.

The election probe is focusing on British businessman Arron Banks, who contributed £8-million ($13.6-million) in loans and donations to several pro-Brexit organizations during the referendum campaign. The Electoral Commission is investigating whether the money came from foreign sources, something Mr. Banks promptly denied and called "bollocks."

The probe comes as British lawmakers have grown increasingly worried about potential Russian interference in the referendum campaign, which saw 52 per cent of voters back Britain leaving the European Union. Recent reports of "dark money" infiltrating the referendum and revelations out of the United States about Russian involvement in last year's presidential campaign have sparked calls by members of Parliament for investigations in Britain. With concerns about Brexit already looming, the Conservative government is scrambling to respond to any suggestion the referendum campaign may have been compromised.

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On Thursday, Prime Minister Theresa May expressed her concern about the Electoral Commission review and the U.S. probe by Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller, which this week turned up some British connections, including allegations of money laundering through Britain and the involvement of a London-based professor. "We take very seriously issues of Russian intervention or Russian attempts to intervene in electoral processes or in the democratic processes of any country and we would do so for any other states that were involved in trying to intervene in elections," Ms. May told the House of Commons.

Last month, the House of Commons Select Committee on Digital, Cultural, Media and Sport launched an inquiry into the "role of foreign actors" during the referendum and its chair has asked Facebook to provide information about Russian-linked advertising similar to what Facebook has provided to U.S. legislators. This week, lawyers representing Facebook told a U.S. congressional committee that almost 150 million people saw posts from a Russia-backed agency during the presidential race. Google and Twitter have also revealed that Russia-backed operations posted millions of messages during the presidential campaign.

"Part of this inquiry will focus on the role of foreign actors abusing platforms such as yours to interfere in the political discourse of other nations," committee chair Damian Collins, a Conservative MP, said in a letter to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw has also raised concerns in Parliament about a recent report by the non-profit media group Open Democracy, which alleged that "dark money" infiltrated the referendum and that illegal donations were made. The report by the Britain-based organization, which has been partly funded by philanthropist George Soros, whose charity has been banned by Russia, did not specifically name Russia but it raised questions about offshore donations and the source of Mr. Banks's wealth. Mr. Bradshaw called the allegations "very worrying" and he urged the government to "examine these reports very carefully."

Mr. Banks has been a key figure in the Brexit battle for decades, as a donor to various Brexit causes and a vocal advocate for Britain leaving the EU. He's also been the main financial backer of the United Kingdom Independence Party and he's a long-time friend of former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who spent years campaigning to pull Britain out of the EU and stepped down as party leader shortly after the referendum.

On Wednesday, the Electoral Commission said it was investigating a £6-million loan Mr. Banks made to Leave.EU during the referendum campaign as well as £2.4-million worth of donations a company he controlled made to five pro-Brexit groups. The commission said it was looking into whether Mr. Banks and his company were the true source of the money or if it came from outside the country. Under British law, foreigners are not allowed to make political donations.

"Interest in the funding of the EU referendum campaigns remains widespread," commission counsel Bob Posner said in a statement. "Questions over the legitimacy of funding provided to campaigners at the referendum risks causing harm to voters' confidence."

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Mr. Banks denied the allegations and said in a statement that his "sole involvement with the 'Russians' was a boozy six-hour lunch with the ambassador where we drank the place dry (they have some cracking vodka and brandy)." He added that "the allegations of Brexit being funded by the Russians and propagated by Ben Bradshaw are complete bollocks."

He called for a judge-led inquiry, reporting to Parliament, to investigate all the main campaign groups during the referendum, including Vote Leave, Remain, and Leave.EU. That "would be the best way to clear this nonsense up once and for all." And he took a swipe at the commission, suggesting it was biased in favour of those who voted to remain in the EU. "The Remain 'Electoral Commission' isn't up to the job and consists of political place men from all main parties," he said.

Russia's ambassador to Britain, Alexander Yakovenko, has also called suggestions of Russian interference insulting and unconvincing.

Russia isn't the only focus of alleged interference. There have also been reports by British newspapers that the commission is investigating allegations that the U.S. media organization Breitbart provided paid staff to UKIP during the referendum campaign. Those staff allegedly worked as volunteers during the campaign, according to reports, raising questions about whether that amounted to an indirect donation. Mr. Farage is a close friend of Breitbart founder Steve Bannon, who is also a former adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump. The former UKIP leader was also among the first foreigners to meet Mr. Trump after the election. A UKIP spokesman has denied the allegations.

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