Originally published in tabletmag.com on August 22 2016 (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/211152/trump-data-analytics-russian-access)
Tracing the suspicious-looking, and messy, ties between a Ukrainian oligarch, an elections-information firm, and the GOP candidate’s former campaign manager
The Trump campaign has hired Ted Cruz’s former data-analysis firm, Cambridge Analytica—and in doing so, it has connected itself with a British property tycoon, Vincent Tchenguiz, and through him with the Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, a business associate of Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who resigned last week. It would be hard to find a better example of why the ownership of the companies that collect data on the American electorate matters.
What Cambridge does is what marketers have done for some time now: segment potential customers (in this case, voters) by their buying habits, lifestyle, and psychology. It most famously worked on the “Leave.” campaign during Brexit voting in the United Kingdom.
Cambridge Analytica’s British parent company, SCL, has attracted criticism for some unusual strategies, such as trying to persuade opposition supporters not to vote in a Nigerian election, using the influence of “local religious figures.”
Mainly, though, SCL and CA both seem to have some pretty tired ideas. “The firm groups people according to where they fall on the so-called OCEAN scale, which psychologists use to measure how open, conscientious, extroverted, agreeable, or neurotic they are,” Wired reported in April. There’s nothing evil—or particularly smart—about this “psychological profiling,” which has been around for decades, and it’s questionable if it actually works to predict voting behavior.
CA obviously didn’t sprinkle the right kind of fairy dust for Cruz; a recent news item has it that the campaign felt it was CA to develop its product. Others say the firm doesn’t quite “get” American politics and has reliability issues: As Advertising Age quoted a consultant: “The product comes late or it’s not quite what you envisioned.”
But what’s worrisome is that CA, as The Wall Street Journal reports, is not just relying on public records:
Cambridge Analytica is surveying tens of thousands of Britons across the country on issues including partisanship, personality, and their concerns about EU membership. The company will then fuse those findings with other publicly available data on voters to produce advice for how “Leave. EU” should target their messaging more specifically through multiple channels.
Between “big data,” cyberwarfare, and new levels of detail in election polling, Americans ought to be thinking seriously about who owns the firms that collect this data.
And because CA is linked to U.K. property mogul Vincent Tchenguiz, who himself has connections to Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, a Putin protégé (and Paul Manafort business associate) it’s possible the information CA collects might be shared with people who are not friendly to American democracy—not that Donald Trump thinks there’s anything wrong with Putin, Firtash, and others like them.
For 10 years, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company’s largest shareholder was Vincent Tchenguiz, who, together with his brother Robert, is estimated to be worth £850 million (about $1.1 billion). Even today, a year after Tchenguiz divested his shares, SCL Group Chairman Julian Wheatland, who is also one of the company’s four directors, is a Tchenguiz employee.
Tchenguiz used the same Guernsey holding company, Wheddon Ltd., to invest both in Cambridge Analytica’s parent company in the U.K. and in another privately held U.K. business whose largest shareholder was the Ukrainian gas middleman Dmitry Firtash. (To buy into a privately held business you normally need the approval of the biggest shareholders, who were Firtash and Raymond Asquith, who also works for Firtash.) Firtash, indicted in 2014 by the United States in a complex bribery case, is under a sort of house arrest in Austria, free on $175 million bail, while the U.S. continues to attempt, unsuccessfully, to extradite him. He has already been stripped of some of his Ukrainian assets by prosecutors there.
Many articles have reported that the U.S. billionaire Robert Mercer is the owner of Cambridge, but some basic Googling would have shown that this isn’t true. The Daily Beast got it right; Cambridge Analytica’s press releases refer to it as “the U.S. subsidiary of SCL Group.” But the relationship between Cambridge Analytica and SCL is far from easy to decipher.
The privately-held SCL Group Ltd. (UK co. #05514098) has a half-dozen subsidiaries, with an overlapping group of directors. One subsidiary is SCL Elections. Cambridge Analytica’s website in December 2015 listed its New York address as Suite 2703 in the News Corp. building, 1211 Avenue of the Americas, the same New York address formerly listed on SCL Elections’ website as its New York office. (Both websites have since been updated, with new addresses.) SCL Elections is entirely owned by executive Alexander Nix.
Meanwhile, another related company, SCL USA, incorporated in January 2015 and entirely owned by SCL Elections, changed its name to Cambridge Analytica UK Ltd. on April 14 of this year. Confusingly, its U.K. address, 1 Westferry Circle, is not the same as either the address of SCL Elections or the London address of Cambridge Analytica at 1-6 Yarmouth Place in Mayfair. And it’s unclear if there’s a Cambridge Analytica incorporated anywhere in the United States; one would have to search registers in all 50 states.
Ad Age reported that CA “will not discuss its investors,” but the mothership, SCL Group, has pretty straightforward ownership: From shortly after its incorporation in 2005 until June 2015, according to the company’s obligatory Companies House filings, the largest of the 15 shareholders of SCL Group was Tchenguiz.
Tchenguiz made his money in London’s highly competitive real estate market and is said to be smart as a whip. He and his brother Robert are also known as big Tory donors. But what they’re best known for isn’t something any entrepreneur seeks out.
In March 2011 the brothers were arrested in dramatic predawn raids as part of an investigation into the 2008 collapse of the Icelandic bank Kaupthing. Just before its collapse, Kaupthing’s loans to the Tchenguiz brothers totaled 40 percent of its capital. It has been charged that Kaupthing—which had a far-from-transparent ownership structure—was effectively the Tchenguiz brothers’ bank and that they looted the bank, leading to its collapse. Various Kaupthing executives ended up in jail. Yet Vincent Tchenguiz managed to beat the charges, and even to win restitution from the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office after charges were dropped. Many think the SFO badly mishandled the case.
That’s not all. Kaupthing’s largest shareholder, Meidur, now called Exista, which owned 25 percent of its shares, had ties to Alfa Bank, the largest Russian commercial bank; Alfa chairman was “deep state” figure Mikhail Fridman, chairman and co-founder of Alfa Group, the parent of Alfa Bank. Meanwhile, Trump adviser Richard Burt is on the “senior advisory board” of Alfa Bank. (None of which is illegal or secret.)
Vincent Tchenguiz’s investment in SCL Group Ltd. began soon after the company’s incorporation July 20, 2005. In the fall of 2005, Tchenguiz’s Consensus Business Group acquired 22,533 shares of SCL—the largest single shareholding, representing 24 percent of its then-95,134 shares. On Nov. 11, 2006, a new director was appointed to represent Tchenguiz’s interests—Julian David Wheatland, who was listed as “chairman” in the 2010 and 2011 accounts and on the SCL Group website.
Wheatland was formerly “head of the International Division at U.K. structured-finance house Consensus Business Group.” Consensus is Tchenguiz’s holding company. Wheatland is currently CEO of Consensus Community, a part of Consensus Business Group, which in turn manages investments for Investec Trust (Guernsey) Ltd., a trustee for the Tchenguiz Family Trust.
The 2006 accounts (available online) of SCL Group show a whopping loss of £2.3 million ($3.02 million), but no “going concern” statement was included. In May 2013, SCL Group’s auditor resigned; the 2011 accounts were the last audited accounts filed. Shareholders’ equity plummeted from: £681,000 in 2006 to a modest £273,000 in 2012 to £4,424 in 2013 and £87,420 in 2014—a very poor showing compared to similar companies.
Tchenguiz remained involved in SCL Group for 10 years, despite its lack of financial returns. Vincent Tchenguiz is mainly known as a real estate investor; his reasons for acquiring shares in SCL in the first place are as opaque as his reason for divesting them. From the outside, it seems an odd, unprofitable sideline. But SCL is a private company, so we can only follow the filings: Tchenguiz’s 22,533 shares were initially held by Consensus Business Group and later owned by Wheddon Ltd., another vehicle owned by his family holding company, Investec Trust.
Then, as of June 10, 2015, SCL canceled Wheddon’s 22,533 shares and paid Wheddon £147,746 (about $194,500)—a tiny amount in relation to Tchenguiz’s estimated wealth. It also changed its name from Strategic Communications Laboratories Ltd. to its current name, SCL Group Ltd. Julian Wheatland signed the “special resolution,” which, in U.K. business is a move “to protect minority shareholders against important decisions being taken without proper consideration and, to the extent possible, consensus.”
Did Tchenguiz change the name and remove his shareholding as an attempt to rebrand, in preparation for going to work for Ted Cruz? If that’s so, the Cruz campaign did only an imitation of due diligence, looking only at the company’s current ownership, not even bothering with the previous year, and not noticing that Tchenguiz still has a director on the company. Though Tchenguiz no longer owns shares in SCL, he would likely retain influence on the company operations: His director, Julian Wheatland is still SCL’s chairman and one of SCL’s four directors to this day. Wheatland is also a director of two other companies in the SCL family: SCL Analytics Ltd. and SCL Strategics Ltd.
Tchenguiz has branched out beyond his core ground-rents business before—and this is what connects him to Manafort partner Dmitry Firtash. Around the same time that he bought into SCL, in 2005-2006, Vincent Tchenguiz began giving interviews publicizing a new interest: “green” investing. One of these seemingly anodyne investments was in a privately held U.K. company called Zander Group Ltd. that has a very complex capital structure.
What does Zander do? Zander says on one of its subsidiaries’ websites that it is in the business of soil regeneration. It doesn’t seem to get a lot of work, but on March 2007, according to a posting on its website from January 2012 (since removed), it signed a contract to work on anti-desertification in Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya. An ex-director of Zander Group, Geoffrey Stuart Pearson, was jailed in Britain for his role in the collapse of Langbar Corp., the U.K.’s biggest AIM market fraud. (At the time, the U.K.’s SFO shut Langbar down in fall 2005, Zander shares were its only investment. The SFO apparently never found this interesting.)
As the obligatory Companies House filings show, Tchenguiz invested in Zander Group in 2005-2006 through his Vantania Holdings Ltd.; on Sept. 11, 2015, Vantania transferred its shares to Wheddon Ltd. (This was just after Wheddon had divested its shares in SCL Group Ltd.)
Here’s the Firtash link: From 2006 until 2011, the largest single shareholding in Zander Group, 28 percent of the total shares, was owned by a Cyprus company called Spadi Trading. And Spadi was owned by Group DF, as in Dmitry Firtash, in the British Virgin Islands. This holding company is one of 153 companies worldwide the U.S. is trying to seize pursuant to its indictment of Firtash. (Spadi’s ultimate owner is Robert Shetler-Jones, also a Group DF board member.).
There’s no proof that Tchenguiz knows Firtash, but it’s hard to imagine he’d be able to buy into a closely-held private business like Zander without the approval of the largest shareholder, even though Tchenguiz only bought 74,075 out of 11.5 million Zander Group shares in 2006. Moreover, Zander Group’s chairman, and its biggest shareholder, is Raymond Asquith, an English peer who doubles as an executive of Group DF.
Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had numerous dealings with Dmitry Firtash’s Group DF. Firtash is probably the most savory person with whom Manafort has worked; others include Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch formerly barred from the United States for Russian mob ties, ex-Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich, Mobutu Sese Seko, Ferdinand Marcos, and African warlord Jonas Savimbi. The fact that Vincent Tchenguiz’s man Wheatland is still the chairman and a director of SCL Group and that Tchenguiz is also a co-investor with the Firtash crew might give some candidates pause—but there’s no reason to think Trump is one of them. (As far as the public record indicates, Trump has never worked directly with Tchenguiz and Paul Manafort is not a director of any English companies, though he might be a shareholder; this information is not easily searchable.)
The moral may be, we ought to be paying closer attention to who owns the companies collecting data on American voters.