The whistle-blower at the centre of an international furor over misused Facebook data is now also alleging that the 2016 Brexit vote was tainted when U.K. campaign funds were wrongly routed to a Canadian consultancy he helped start.
Canadian political consultant Christopher Wylie made these allegations in an exclusive sit-down interview with The Globe and Mail in London on Sunday, just hours after a second whistle-blower emerged on the front pages of the London Observer.
Shahmir Sanni, a former volunteer for Vote Leave campaign, said he had first-hand knowledge about the alleged wrongdoing in the Brexit campaign. He said a B.C. firm was paid £625,000 ($1.14-million) as British campaign entities sought to circumvent limits on their spending.
Prior to these new allegations, Victoria-based AggregateIQ had already been under pressure. For months, government regulators have been pursuing probes to determine the Canadian consultancy’s role in shaping the Brexit vote. They also wanted to know about the firm’s links to a similar U.K. consultancy, Cambridge Analytica.
What is Cambridge Analytica, and what did it do? A guide
Now, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are piling on and urging that the Canadian consultants involved −many of them former federal Liberal Party volunteers − give answers in public. “I will be asking Parliament to call representatives from the Canadian firm AggregateIQ to explain their connections to Cambridge Analytica and the Leave Campaign,” NDP MP Charlie Angus tweeted on Sunday.
But the Victoria consultancy said it is not to be blamed for matters related to the Brexit vote. “AggregateIQ is a digital advertising, web and software development company based in Canada,” co-founder Jeff Silvester said in an email.
He added that his company has “never knowingly been involved in any illegal activity.”
What’s not in dispute is that Mr. Wylie and Mr. Silvester know each other well. A decade ago, Mr. Silvester was a mentor to a teenaged Mr. Wylie in federal Liberal Party circles. Back then they volunteered for the same B.C. MP. They were also part of a group of young Turks in the party who tried to sell its old guard on the notion that better access to data can drive electoral outcomes.
Considering this history while sitting in his lawyer’s office in London, Mr. Wylie told The Globe “it deeply pains” him to turn against a former friend. Known worldwide as a whistle-blower now, he was poised and genial − but his knee bounced like a piston throughout the hour-long interview.
He now argued that the founders of AggregateIQ have a moral obligation to reveal what they know to authorities. “If they have nothing to hide, they should come here and talk to authorities,” Mr. Wylie said. He added that “Brexit is not just an election. If crimes were committed by various parties in Vote Leave, and if AggregateIQ facilitated cheating in a referendum, that is a really big deal because this is a permanent, irrevocable change in the constitution of the country.”
It had been a week since Mr. Wylie emerged as front-page news globally. The previous weekend he announced himself to the world by dropping another bombshell in the Observer about how he worked with Steve Bannon, a former Donald Trump aide, as part of a plan to surreptitiously acquire and misuse the data of tens of millions Facebook users.
But 2013 and 2014 were very busy years for Mr. Wylie. He had gone to the London School of Economics before joining a London consultancy known as the SCL Group. Then he met Mr. Bannon as a prospective client, with whom he says he personally worked to spin out the Cambridge Analytica unit that was later implicated in the misuse of Facebook data.
It was in this time, Mr. Wylie said, that he also urged former friends in Canada to join him. He prevailed on people with whom he spent his formative years in Ottawa, as a Liberal researcher, and in Victoria, as a Liberal volunteer.
“I reached out to people I had worked with in the past on projects, who I had a lot of respect for, who I knew were talented − a lot of those people were in Canada. So the first-generation team at Cambridge Analytica was filled with Canadians.”
Mr. Wylie said he especially wanted to work with Mr. Silvester and his business partner, Zack Massingham. Both had young families, and neither was willing to move to England, so a new company was created.
“The compromise was they could stay in Canada, they could set up a company, but that company would in large part, trade or operate or fill the role of quote-unquote SCL Canada,” Mr. Wylie said.
He said that was an unofficial brand only, which mostly surfaced in internal correspondence − it was otherwise known as Aggregate IQ. (AggregateIQ said in its statement “it has never been and is not a part of Cambridge Analytica or SCL.”)
Mr. Wylie now says this unit did work as far afield as Nigeria and Trinidad and Tobago. And both AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica were engaged by the Ted Cruz campaign team in the 2016 Republican primaries.
U.K. campaign finance records show that AggregateIQ got millions of pounds from distinct groups pushing for Britain to leave the European Union.
On Sunday, a second whistle-blower alleged some of this was an end run around campaign finance laws.
A former volunteer, Mr. Sanni, told the Observer he was a 22-year-old working for one pro-Brexit faction, known as Vote Leave, when he was encouraged to spin out an ostensibly distinct entity, known as BeLeave. But the latter entity was a powerless shell, he told the Observer. He provided the newspaper documents speaking to a specific £625,000 transfer from one entity to the other. “We had no control over it,” he said.
The money made its way to AggregateIQ, which had already gotten money from other pro-Brexit factions.
According to the New York Times, Mr. Wylie, as he was making his allegations about Cambridge Analytica, encouraged Mr. Sanni to go public with his claims about Vote Leave and BeLeave as well.
Together, these specific allegations by Mr. Wylie and Mr. Sanni lend considerable clarity to money movements already under investigation by government regulators in Canada and Britain.
But such probes have run into jurisdictional roadblocks. On Friday, The Globe asked acting B.C. Information Commissioner Drew McArthur whether he understood the corporate relationship between AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica. “I don’t know specifics around that as of yet,” he said, adding that he has not yet interviewed anyone under oath.
As he ended the interview, Mr. Wylie was scornful of the attention the Canadian media has focused on his past Liberal Party ties, particularly a 2016 contract with the Liberal Caucus Research Bureau that saw him paid $100,000.
He said there was nothing scandalous or particularly interesting about it, given how he had left the world of Cambridge Analytica by then. “Frankly, the Canadian press is trying to find a scandal where one doesn’t exist,” he said.
But he alleged AggregateIQ was part of a Brexit scandal. “Up until 2016, this company [AggregateIQ] they were tied at the hip with Cambridge Analytica,” he said.
With reports from Mike Hager and Paul Waldie
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article was unclear in stating that the Liberal Caucus Research Bureau, not the Liberal party, had a contract with Mr. Wylie. This version has been corrected.