Bill Browder: Putin’s Foreign Enemy #1
A hedge-fund-investor-turned-human-rights-activist, he has made a career out of being Vladimir Putin’s archnemesis.
Bill Browder made his name — and fortune — as an American hedge fund manager who happened to be in the right place (Russia’s nascent capital markets) at the right time (the 1990s).
That was before he found himself on the wrong side of Vladimir Putin.
Browder, who founded hedge fund firm Hermitage Capital Management in Moscow in 1996, achieved early success as a dissident shareholder in Russia, pressuring corrupt companies to clean up their acts for the good of stockholders. Though he gained considerable prominence as a shareholder activist — Hermitage managed $4.5 billion at its peak and at one time was the best-performing hedge fund in the world — Browder, 53, has since become far better known for activism of a different kind.
His lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died in a Russian prison in 2009 under what the U.S. government called “suspicious circumstances.” Magnitsky had discovered a complicated government plot to steal Hermitage’s holding companies and use them to fraudulently misappropriate taxes Hermitage had paid to the government, Browder alleges. But what Browder later learned was much more ominous: He recently testified that the crime went all the way back to Putin, Russia’s prime minister, who Browder claims is “the richest man in the world” owing to extensive fraud and corruption.
After Magnitsky’s death, Browder realized that obtaining criminal justice in Russia would be impossible. Instead, he embarked on an extensive lobbying campaign to pressure U.S. government officials into passing legislation, in 2012, that made it impossible for the officials involved in Magnitsky’s death to obtain visas to the U.S. or stash their assets in the West. The law came to be known as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act.
The former financier has found himself at the epicenter of one of the biggest stories in global politics: the investigation into whether President Donald Trump colluded with Russia to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The Magnitsky Act plays an unlikely starring role in the saga.
“If one tenth of 1 percent of Americans had heard of the Magnitsky Act prior to this whole thing, now maybe 10 percent of Americans know what the Magnitsky Act is. It’s become part of the vocabulary of this political scandal,” Browder told me on a Sunday night in late August in New York. “I just never thought that my private battle was going to become everybody in America’s battle.”
I have chronicled Browder’s story several times over the years, but after an explosive New York Times story thrust the Magnitsky Act into the global spotlight this summer, I was eager to catch up with him again. Over a shared cheese plate and drinks at Grand Central Terminal’s stylish Campbell Bar, Browder brought me up-to-date on why the signature legislation that bears his late lawyer’s name is in the news once again.
A central figure in the Times story was another Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya. In 2013 the U.S. Department of Justice opened a case to seize $20 million worth of New York real estate owned by a man named Denis Katsyv. The government alleged that it had been purchased using money from the crime Magnitsky discovered. Katsyv and his father, Pyotr Katsyv — a senior official in the Putin regime — hired Veselnitskaya and sent her to the U.S. to recover their money and then work to repeal the Magnitsky Act.
This is, of course, the same Veselnitskaya who met with Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, and former campaign manager Paul Manafort on June 9, 2016 — the meeting that was the subject of the Times story. The younger Trump was lured to the meeting with the promise of potentially damaging information on his father’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. But when they got there, they found that Veselnitskaya wanted to discuss the Magnitsky Act.
Browder, who has become an extremely effective lobbyist, speaks in fully formed paragraphs, concisely laying out his complex story in the manner of someone who has become accustomed to having to make his case in a short amount of time. As he explains, he was tossed out of Putin’s Russia in 2005 because his pressuring companies to root out corruption was having an adverse impact on Putin’s bottom line. A few years after getting elected, Putin had struck a deal with Russia’s oligarchs that he would personally take 50 percent of their personal wealth in exchange for not throwing them into a Russian prison, Browder told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. But Putin’s enmity really ramped up with the passage of the Magnitsky Act.
“We discovered that we got a very huge, direct hit exactly on the Achilles heel of the Putin administration with this Magnitsky Act, and we discovered it based on his reaction,” Browder explains. “He feels like all this money that he holds via these oligarchs could potentially be frozen in the West. So it’s personal.”
Putin declared getting the Magnitsky Act repealed to be his No. 1 foreign policy priority. In retaliation for the U.S.’s passing the act, he banned the adoption of Russian orphans by American families. Later the Russian government put Browder and Magnitsky on trial in absentia.
“They didn’t stop there,” he says. “They went out and hired a whole phalanx of U.S. lobbyists, lawyers, PR firms, investigators, and others to assist them” in lobbying against the Magnitsky Act. Browder says none of these people disclosed they were working for a foreign power, which is a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
That’s what brought Browder before the Judiciary Committee, where he testified for nearly two hours on July 27 about the role of those working on behalf of the Russian government to carry out what he calls a “smear campaign” against him. Browder says his judiciary hearing had been scheduled about a month before the famous Trump Jr. meeting was disclosed, and then the Times story broke on July 9.
“All of a sudden it became a much bigger story — about not just my story, but about Russian interference more generally in the U.S. political process,” he says. “I’m not a politician, and I had a lot to say and I didn’t pull my punches, so I named names and told the story in very great detail. Dianne Feinstein, who was the ranking member of the committee, said to me afterward, in her 24 years in the Senate, she’s never heard testimony more shocking and more powerful than my testimony at the Judiciary Committee that day.”
Russia is not pulling punches either. It recently added Browder to Interpol’s “most wanted” list for a fourth time, tried to have him extradited, and even sued him for libel (the case was thrown out). “They made five movies about me, calling me everything from a murderer, a spy, a fraudster, etc.,” he says. “There’s currently criminal cases open in Russia against me for murder, espionage, tax evasion, fraud. I’m genuinely their No. 1 foreign enemy.”
These days, Browder is working to get a version of the Magnitsky Act passed in Canada, adapting his 2015 book Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice into a screenplay, and working on his next book, all while following the money-laundering trails of various oligarchs. He’s also sharing information that’s relevant to the collusion investigation “as and when it’s needed with the appropriate people,” though he says he cannot tell me whether one of those people is special prosecutor Robert Mueller, who is overseeing the investigation.
He’s also trying to avoid getting killed. He has bodyguards, though he acknowledges this isn’t a guarantee of safety.
“One of my best protections is actually being very public about the whole thing,” he says. “If anything happens to me, Vladimir Putin and his regime will be the ones responsible.”
By this time, two hours have passed, the cheese plate has gone largely ignored, and Browder is off to his next meeting. As he heads out into the Grand Central crowds, I stay behind to settle the check and send a couple of texts. As I do, I hear the two women at the table behind me, chatting in a language that sounds like Russian. It’s probably a coincidence, I think to myself. But after spending time with Bill Browder, I’m not so sure.