The Sunday Times newspaper has now confirmed reports by this site that senior executives of the election strategist and PR/lobbying company, CT Group, were interviewed by the FBI as “subjects” of an ongoing criminal prosecution in Puerto Rico.
It relates, as the newspaper reports, “to an alleged criminal plot to bribe an American politician and influence a US election“.
Hauled up for questioning in April at the offices of their London lawyers were the UK founding partner and former Global Projects Officer, Mark Fullbrook, now newly appointed as chief of staff in Downing Street; the former intelligence officer Eugene Curley and managing director, Sam Lyon, who “advises international business and political leaders and high net-worth individuals on their most important and complex issues” according to the CT Group website“.
Prior to joining CT Group, Eugene Curley hit the headlines as the CEO of the G3 corporate intelligence group caught up in the defence company expenses scandal that forced the resignation of the Conservative Secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox.
Fullbrook is a long-standing Conservative political advisor who partnered with the group’s controlling figure, the Australian right-wing political strategist, PR man and former Liberal Party director, Sir Lynton Crosby, to set up business in the UK in 2006 to manage the mayoral and Brexit campaigns for Boris Johnson, for which he was later knighted.
The ties between the right wing strategist cum corporate lobby group and the Johnson government then continued symbiotically with numerous personnel from the firm taking roles as advisors at Number 10 and absorbing politically connected operators.
Whilst Johnson was mayor Sam Lyon worked as the director of communications and official spokesman at City Hall before joining CT Group in 2012. Mark Fullbrook together with another Crosby associate David Canzini officially took ‘sabbaticals’ from the company to run Boris’s leadership campaign in 2019 – they said for free – before Canzini and other CT Group employees (including Lynton Crosby protege Isaac Levido) were appointed as advisors to No 10.
As the Johnson government imploded Fullbrook together with other Crosby associates such as digital campaigns specialist Reuben Solomon moved in April to attach themselves to other prospective leadership candidates, eventually backing Liz Truss.
In doing so Fullbrook severed his directorships and ended his partnership at CT Group to set up his own Fullbrook Associates (for which Crosby was on the Advisory Board), an outfit he rapidly disbanded to take over the Truss campaign – but not before taking on some controversial foreign clients including the so-called Libyan Parliament and a firm that won a £680 million PPE deal in the pandemic, according to the Guardian.
Issues of Integrity – CT Group’s Venezuelan Banker Client
There are fundamental concerns about a company which combines its primary function as a corporate lobbyist – 90% of CT Group’s earnings and engagement are estimated to come from its undisclosed private clients in the world of business – with a revolving door into decision making roles in government through its simultaneous involvement in political campaigning.
Under present lobbying rules in the UK, election advisors do not have to declare their private clients and the likes of Mark Fullbrook do not have to declare who funded their activities before joining Downing Street.
The part-time Registrar of Lobbyists has accepted Fullbrook and Canzini’s explanation that they had taken unpaid sabbaticals to run Johnson’s 2019 campaigns, to which their boss Lynton Crosby personally donated several thousand pounds. Following which, Johnson awarded Fullbrook’s wife a peerage for her short-lived role as an MP.
However, Crosby’s record in Australia, where he is widely regarded as having steered the recently deposed Morrison government as one of the leading foot-draggers on climate change during a period of traumatic natural disasters, has already been widely queried.
His protege Yaron Finklestein became Morrison’s highly influential private secretary and the company stands accused of having used its deep reach into the Liberal Party for the benefit of its corporate clients.
As one former associate and detractor has alleged to Sarawak Report, CT Group clients are almost exclusively major industries with ‘reputation issues’ and deep pockets. We can’t be sure as these political strategists do not have to reveal their client list. However, Crosby is known to work for the gambling, alcohol, tobacco, mining and fossil fuel industries along with governments that include Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates.
The Dodgy Tory Donor
Julio Herrera Velutini started donating to the Conservatives from the day Boris Johnson won the election in 2019
It was another reputation challenged client who landed the company’s senior staff in hot water with the FBI earlier this year in connection with an ongoing case involving illicit election finance, bribery and political corruption.
Sarawak Report broke the scandal of banker Julio Herrera Velutini who has simultaneously donated over half a million pounds to the Conservative party last month after the Venezuelan fugitive, who is wanted for financial fraud in his home country, was indicted along with the former Governor of Puerto Rico in the United States.
As the Sunday Times has cited, the case has involved CT Group “in an alleged conspiracy to subvert the democracy of Puerto Rico, the US-adminsitered Caribbean island. Prosecutors have said those responsible “struck a blow to the heart of our democracy” and “eroded the confidence of our citizens in their institutions of governance”.
Sarawak Report has evidence that Fullbrook, Curley and Lyon were instructed by the UK National Crime Agency to submit to interviews by FBI investigators in London in April as ‘Subjects’ of that investigation, meaning that far from being mere witnesses they were regarded as being directly involved in the alleged affair and potentially vulnerable to being criminally charged as well.
The case throws up troubling questions about the integrity of the new man directing operations at Number 10, who in June sanctioned a statement containing a direct lie by CT Group to Sarawak Report after being questioned on this matter, denying that the company ever worked on behalf of the Governor of Puerto Rico. This was later disproved by the devastating contents of the indictment released last month.
Herrera Velutini is charged with having sought to stymie official investigations into suspicious transactions involving a staggering $10 billion through an off-shore bank he had set up under his personal ownership in the US state, largely involving his own accounts.
His solution, say the US prosecutors, was to bribe the then Governor, Wanda Vasquez Garced, into sacking the head of the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions (OCIF) in Puerto Rico and appointing a replacement chosen by the banker himself.
The Governor allegedly accepted and carried out these actions in return for Herrera Velutini’s offer to pay up to a million dollars in projected costs to cover her re-election campaign season during 2019/20. This entailed the banker paying the bills for CT Group whom he had introduced to Vasquez Garced in December 2019 as “The international consulting firm that could make [her] win” [see indictment]
Kicking off a substantial trail of email and text records, the court document lays out in detail how CT Group’s top representatives communicated and interacted with Velutini, Vazquez Garced and their emissaries to support her election campaign.
According to the indictment,’International Consulting Firm-Partner 1′ (identified by Sarawak Report as Lynton Crosby) and ‘International Consulting Firm-Partner 2′ (identified as Mark Fullbrook) were contacted in January 2020 by the banker’s representative, an ex-FBI agent named Mark Rossini (whom CT Group later offered to hire). Rossini, together with Herrera Velutini and Vazquez Garced are the three defendants in the prosecution.
Rossini told the two top executives that Julio Herrera Velutini would be paying for their services to help Garced’s campaign – “The Governor is very excited about the prospect of utilising [the International Consulting Firm] for her re-election campaign….. the bulk of the payment will be done by Julio H”:
Indictment laid in August 2022
The remainder of the indictment, as already detailed by Sarawak Report, makes it completely clear through numerous communications that Fullbrook and his team were totally cognisant of the fact that their campaign polling and strategic advice were not being conducted for the benefit of the foreign banker who was paying their company but for the Governor herself.
Indeed, Fullbrook himself headed a delegation from CT Group in February to make a presentation to the Governor and her team in the presence of Herrera Velutini at a Puerto Rico Hotel – the presentation was entitled ‘Campaign Support Proposal for Governor Wanda Vazquez’.
Numerous references in the indictment are made showing that Fullbrook and his team knew they were conducting their campaign for the Governor of Puerto Rico
In the event Governor Vazquez failed to even win her primary campaign, capping the payments to CT Group at some £300,000, at which point the contract was terminated and Julio Herrera Velutini turned to other methods as he sought to influence the remaining candidates.
Breaking US Election Finance Laws
Yet, despite all the evidence, when queried by Sarawak Report in June, CT Group made the following claim:
“C|T was only engaged by Mr. Herrera, and never did any work for the Governor or her campaign. It has not been engaged by him since.”
Moreover, they also stated:
“A spokesperson for C|T said: “C|T Group is committed to and complies with all laws and regulations in any jurisdiction in which it operates and is confident that it has done so in this matter.
Indeed, C|T Group has fully and voluntarily cooperated with the US authorities, as it always does in any circumstance in which C|T Group’s assistance is sought by authorities.”
Not only is the statement plainly deceptive with regard to the ultimate client for their campaign work, whom they knew to be the Governor, it is also untrue that CT Group was abiding by US election finance laws in accepting secret third party payments from a foreign donor to interfere in the campaign.
As campaign experts CT Group must have been well aware that it was illegal for Julio Herrera Velutini to be donating either directly or indirectly to Wanda Vazquez Grace’s reelection campaign because he was a foreign citizen without any residency status in the United States, as is pointed out in the indictment.
The fact that CT Group, and in particular Mark Fullbrook, were prepared to nevertheless accept covert and illegal third party financing from a plainly dubious character for an election campaign in the United States, just months after working “for free” on Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign in the United Kingdom, raises considerable questions over the integrity of the new chief of staff in Downing Street and whether he is to be believed.
CT Group agreed to be illegally paid by a foreign donor who was interfering in the. Puerto Rico election, according to the indictment
According to the Sunday Times, the matter has already raised concerns about Fullbrook’s security clearance which has yet to be obtained:
“His involvement in an alleged criminal scheme is known by officials in Whitehall, who have raised concerns about whether Fullbrook will obtain the top levels of security clearance inside Downing Street.
Fullbrook said he had told the Cabinet Office propriety and ethics team about the controversy… A Whitehall source said his involvement in the FBI inquiry posed “countless problems”. These include the diplomatic consequences of the prime minster’s top adviser having been investigated by Britain’s closest ally. The Biden administration has allocated huge resources to defending elections from foreign influence” [Sunday Times]
Since Johnson decided to dispense with the services of an ethics advisor following the resignation of his previous one it remains unclear how such issues might be addressed. There is at present precious little information about who might have financed Fullbrook’s wider campaign work or what comprises CT Group’s sources of income as its former employees pack into Liz Truss’s innermost advisory team.
Also on the new Downing Street payroll, for example, is another former CT Group stalwart now described as a ‘Special Advisor to Prime Minister Liz Truss’, the digital communications specialist Reuben Solomon.
Solomon had already worked for Truss as Special Advisor at the Foreign Office and was active in her leadership campaign.
However, prior to this he worked for four years for CT Group focusing on “digital strategy, digital security, digital infrastructure and reputation management on behalf of political leaders, private family offices, and corporations.”
In 2019 he was exposed as the covert organiser of a bogus Facebook campaign named Britain’s Future posing as grassroots support for Brexit during the 2016 referendum campaign. According to revelations by the Guardian, he together with a secret team from CT Group had managed the ‘digital operation’ which was the largest single online campaign favouring Brexit “spending £422,000 on adverts campaigning for a hard Brexit despite never declaring its financial backers.”
Solomon never denied the report neither did he confirm his role. CT Group has yet to declare who financed its deceptive campaign in favour of Brexit.
It is therefore entirely reasonable and indeed pressing to question if there are the hidden hands behind the new Prime Minister’s former CT Group advisors and to question their integrity and ability to act objectively for the national interest whilst free from full disclosure of their separate business interests past or present.
A recent separate expose by Sarawak Report into Boris Johnson’s previous dependence on CT Group to draw up a strategy to pack the House of Lords with politically obedient peers, for example, showed that part of the motivation for the proposed appointments was to ensure a bill to relax laws on tobacco would pass in the Upper House.
CT Group is documented as having represented tobacco companies in line with its wider clientele of big corporates and foreign entities in need of government influence to deflect environmental, health and taxation policies that affect their profits.
Subject or Witness?
The ‘International Consulting Firm’/ CT Group have made clear they were not involved nor had no knowledge of the alleged bribery plot between Herrera Velutini, Vazquez Garced and Mark Rossini, which duly did result in the sacking of the head of Puerto Rico’s OCIF by Governor Vazquez Garced and his replacement by a consultant to Bancredito chosen by Herrera Velutini.
Indeed, there is no indication in the indictment either that they were aware of that conspiracy. Due diligence on Herrera Velutini ought in any circumstances have red-flagged him as a fugitive from fraud charges in the middle of a dispute with his present regulators, quite apart from the illegality of his donations.
In recent statements to the BBC and now the Sunday Times CT Group have sought to distance themselves further from the probe, admitting Fullbrook and his former colleagues had been questioned on these matters by the FBI but claiming this was only as “Witnesses” to the case rather that “Subjects” of the enquiry.
“Witnesses” are called only to assist in US investigations, whereas “Subjects” are specifically considered to have been active participants in the alleged criminal activity who are potentially liable to prosecution themselves.
Sarawak Report is aware that at the time the CT Group managers were questioned in April this year they were categorised as Subjects rather than mere Witnesses. However, they currently claim:
“relevant existing CT employees and former employee Mark Fullbrook, are witnesses in this matter and they and CT Group have fully, completely and voluntarily engaged with the US authorities in this matter, as they always do in any circumstance in which CT Group’s assistance is sought by authorities.” CT Group Statement to BBC
Sarawak Report has queried the company and the new chief of staff at Number 10, seeking clarity on this apparent change of status. We have received no answer to this query to date. However, according to the Sunday Times CT Group and Fullbrook have confirmed that the Downing Street chief of staff signed an agreement with the FBI and is cooperating as a witness:
“In April the FBI asked Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) and the Metropolitan Police to help secure his attendance at a formal interview. He agreed after being approached by Scotland Yard. His company was subpoenaed and forced to hand over hundreds of sensitive emails…..
Fullbrook is being represented by criminal defence lawyers at the white shoe firm White & Case and recently signed a “proffer agreement” with the FBI. This does not grant him absolute immunity but means he can provide evidence knowing it will not be used against him in criminal proceedings. He has since cooperated with the FBI as a witness.” [Sunday Times Insight Investigation]
We therefore suggest that the present lack of accountability and disclosure required of political strategists who combine campaign work for politicians and then decision making roles in government with lucrative private work for major corporates with controversial agendas requires immediate attention and grave consideration at the highest levels.