In an explosive series of revelations, Sarawak Report can exclusively report that a fugitive Venezuelan banker, charged yesterday by the US Department of Justice for bribing the former Governor of Puerto Rico (who has been herself arrested) has been a major donor to the Conservative party and also donated significantly to the Royal Pageant earlier this year.
Julio Herrera-Velutini, who fled Venezuela in 2009 amidst accusations of financial fraud, is a private client of the Conservative Party Chairman, Ben Elliot’s, lobbying company Hawthorne Associates and of his ‘concierge’ service Quintessentially.
Since 2019 the Venezuelan/Italian dual national has donated over half a million pounds to the Conservatives through a UK registered company that he controls and donated to the Royal Jubilee in April. This despite the laws prohibiting foreign donors to UK political parties.
The case inevitably raises serious concerns about the party’s vetting of foreign and domestic donors, a matter raised often on this site, along with the blurring of interests on the part of Elliot himself.
In a further sensational twist, Sarawak Report has also exclusively revealed in a joint investigation with Channel 4 News that another Conservative connected company, CT Group, owned by Boris Johnson’s top political advisor and election strategist, Sir Lynton Crosby, is at the heart of the criminal allegations against Herrera-Velutini who was also their client.
One of the leading partners involved was Mark Fullbrook, who is now running the party leadership campaign for the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss. He was one of three senior members of the company questioned by the FBI about the case in April.
The indictment, lodged in the Puerto Rico District Court, refers to the UK based political consulting and lobbying consultancy anonymously as “International Consulting Firm”. However, Sarawak Report has identified the CT Group subsidiary CT Global, as the entity in the US that was paid at least $300,000 by the banker to provide the polling and election advisory services that formed the bulk of the services in kind he is charged with offering to Governor Wanda Vazquez Garced as a bribe between 2019 and 2020.
As a foreign national it was illegal for Mr Herrera-Velutuni to fund a political campaign in the United States and the indictment claims that the banker did so with the specific purpose of closing down investigations by the Puerto Rico financial authorities into suspicious activities by his Bancredito International, based in Puerto Rico, of which Herrera-Velutini is the Chairman and principle shareholder.
In return for the election assistance, the court papers allege that Governor had secretly pledged to remove the head of the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions (OCIF), the regulator that was investigating Bancredito over serious anti-money laundering irregularities, including breaches of the Banking Secrecy and Patriot Acts and the failure to issue suspicious activity reports primarily relating to transactions from Julio Herrera-Velutini’s own accounts. According to a DOJ press release:
Beginning in 2019, Herrera Velutini’s bank was the subject of an examination by Puerto Rico’s Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions (OCIF), a regulatory agency that oversees financial institutions operating in Puerto Rico. Through intermediaries, Herrera Velutini and Rossini [Herrera’s private agent] allegedly promised to provide funding to support Vazquez Garced’s 2020 gubernatorial election campaign in exchange for Vazquez Garced terminating the Commissioner of OCIF and appointing a new Commissioner of Herrera Velutini’s choosing. The indictment alleges that Vazquez Garced accepted the offer of a bribe and, in February 2020, took official action to demand the resignation of OCIF Commissioner A and, in May 2020, to appoint OCIF Commissioner B – a former consultant for the international bank owned by Herrera Velutini – who had been personally selected by Herrera Velutini. In return, Herrera Velutini and Rossini allegedly paid more than $300,000 to political consultants in support of Vazquez Garced’s campaign.
However, when questioned in June, a spokesman for CT Group admitted they did polling and election advisory work for Mr Herrera-Velutini but told Sarawak Report that the company’s services were provided exclusively for him and claimed they “never did any work for the Governor or her campaign”:
“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.
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.”
[Response to Sarawak Report by CT Group 30th June]
This now appears to have been untrue.
According to the court indictment there were numerous interchanges between the alleged “co-conspirators” in the plot to close down the investigations into Bancredito in return for CT Group’s campaign services, namely Julio Herrera-Velutini, his ‘special agent’ Mark Rossini and the Governor together with her political agents.
These indicate CT Group were aware that Herrera Velutini was paying for their services on behalf of the Governor. Indeed senior staff flew to Puerto Rico from London together with Mr Herrera-Velutini to meet with the Governor herself and present a strategy for her election, before receiving a contract and over a quarter of a million pounds as an initial payment indirectly from the banker.
Communications cited as evidence by investigators in the case lay out in detail how the conspiracy developed between the parties.
In one text on January 15 2020, following a meeting between Herrera, the Bancredito CEO and Governor Vazquez, Mark Rossini texted a CT Group senior partner in London to say “The Governor wants [the International Consulting Firm].. Some campaign finances will pay for your services. The bulk will be paid by Julio”.
Later the same day Rossini elaborated in an email to CT Group into which the firm’s then Chief Global Projects Officer, Mark Fullbrook, was copied. The indictment quotes:
“As an update Julio H., met with the current Governor and her Chief of Staff yesterday. The Governor is very excited about the prospect of utilising [the International Consulting Firm] for her re-election campaign,” and “[t]he campaign is actively raising funds, and will pay for a portion of [the International Consulting Firm]’s services. The bulk of the payment will be done by Julio H;, and similarly wealthy individuals here whom are creating a super PAC. Julio H. will personally fund anything which is not covered by the campaign or PAC”
Sarawak Report believes it was therefore misled by CT Group on this matter.
Indeed, in a later text cited in the indictment Rossini explained that once the finance came through from Herrera-Velutini CT Group would hire him personally “to be the liaison between [themselves] and the campaign”.
This was followed by an email January 21 2020 from Rossini to Fullbrook informing that the date “28th February (Friday) in the latter part of the day, is confirmed for the [CT Group] presentation to the Governor”.
Mark Fullbrook then asked Herrera and Rossini where CT Group should send its invoice? Messages sent to the Governor’s assistant indicated the cost to Herrera of hiring the consulting firm for their benefit was to be $500,000.
A presentation was then sent to the Governor prepared by CT Group entitled ‘Campaign Support Proposal for Governor Wanda Vazquez’.
Following this, a damning text was sent from Herrera Velutini to one of Vazquez’s assistants, two days before the planned presentation meeting between CT Group and the Governor, demanding satisfaction on repeated requests for the head of the OCIF to be sacked in order to close down the investigation into his bank.
This, the text made clear, would be a condition for the provision of CT Group’s services by the banker and it had to happen beforehand.
The appointment and removal of the Commissioner of the OCIF is in the power of the Governor in Puerto Rico but clearly to do so for secret personal gain and to obstruct an investigation in line with banking regulations would be a criminal abuse of power. Yet this is what Herrera (who by now had also started funding the Conservative party to the tune of hundreds of thousands over in the UK) demanded done before he brought five people (including CT Group personnel) from London to meet her:
“Well I am meeting [a partner from the International Consulting Firm] at 3pm. We need to confirm the meeting [of 28th] since we are 5 people crossing the Atlantic to meet her and we also need her support for the OCIF situation that can no longer wait!! Please talk to the Governor if necessary but we should not spend money, Time and Effort in people that do not need our help!! Best Regards” [DOJ criminal Indictment No – 22-342 ADC]
In response, the indictment says, Wanda Vazquez’s Chief of Staff summoned the OCIF Commissioner to a meeting at the Governor’s residence where he was told he had to resign his position by February 28th (the day of the planned meeting with CT Group and Herrera).
Just hours before the meeting on that day an assistant to the Governor forwarded a screenshot of the resignation letter to one of Herrera’s associates “followed by a “FYI *heart emoji*” which was followed by a confirmation of the meeting “See you 6pm!” by the associate.
The Governor, Herrera-Velutini, Rossini and several associates and assistants then met as agreed, the indictment continues, that evening at a hotel in San Juan together with “partners from the International Consulting Firm” [CT Group] “so that the International Consulting Firm could present the services it could offer Vazquez in support of her gubernatorial campaign”.
This presentation included services such as “research and campaign strategy formulation”. It was also allegedly confirmed in the meeting that Herrera-Velutini would be paying for CT Group’s services to the Governor’s Campaign.
In earlier messages cited in the indictment Vazquez’s assistants had asked directly for advice from Herrera as to who he wanted appointed to replace the sacked chief financial regulator? Texts show that Herrera arranged for a short meeting alone with the Governor following the CT Group presentation to discuss what would be expected of the new regulator which included “use a paving roller over OCIF and build a new structure that… doesn’t persecute the banks”.
Following the meeting (in a text on the same evening) Herrera communicated the name of the individual he wished to be appointed as the new commissioner, which was one Victor Rodriguez Bonilla, who had formerly worked for Bankcredito as a consultant!
The next day Herrera wrote to Bonilla to ask if he was interested in becoming Commissioner and Bonilla replied by sending his resume to Herrera-Velutini which the Venezuelan forwarded to Rossini with the note “This is our men for OCIF Job”. A further message to the Governor’s assistant confirmed that with his man in position “this way I can dedicate time and money to her campaign”.
Following this Rossini texted CT Group that the banker had agreed to a contract to pay them £250,000 and then £200,000 a month to cover the campaign work until the elections in November. “I hope [CT Group] knows I only bring the best clients” Rossini wrote.
Herrera-Velutini duly paid CT Group an initial £263,000 ($315,000) March 25th and in April CT Group submitted a first report summarising results of polling and research conducted in Puerto Rico.
Immediately after, messages show that Herrera directly put pressure on the Governor’s office to immediately appoint his recommended replacement as OCIF Commissioner, after Bonilla had told the banker he was having difficulty reaching her staff to discuss the matter.
Otherwise, the banker said he would withdraw other promised funds to help set up a Super PAC on the Governor’s behalf: “If /when that gentleman [Bonilla] is installed as the OCIF director that with 72 hours the ‘switch will be turned on’ and the PAC will be on the island and forging ahead” Rossini wrote to the Governor’s political agent. Bonilla was appointed to head the OCIF on May 14th.
That evening Rossini texted a CT Group employee “just got word to prepare”. The reply ‘prepare for take off?”. Yes, “Buckle your seatbelts”.
Herrera-Velutini’s associates party to the conspiracy then sent the banker a text that tellingly reflected on the implications of having successfully bribed the Governor of the state: “Finally u have power here sir” he wrote. The pair agreed that power could only last if kept secret.
In the event the shocking conspiracy failed. Wanda Vazquez Garced failed to win the primary for the election campaign and Bonilla, although appointed thanks to Herrera, recused himself from oversight of the investigation on grounds of conflict and soon issued a complaint to the FBI to say that he was being pressured by Herrera’s agent to cease the investigations into Bancredito.
Unbeknown to the conspirators a criminal investigation was secretly launched and an official of the next elected governor who was also working for the FBI agreed to pretend to accept further bribes from Herrera as the banker attempted to repeat his attempts to influence the OCIF to drop its case against Bancredito. The official passed the evidence to the FBI investigators including further offers to pay the Democrat leaning Governor $50,000 for his campaign fund – money that was duly sent.
The banker is now charged with the crime of bribery of a senior official in the United States following a Grand Jury hearing that had lasted several week. Both he and the former Governor face a maximum prison term of 20 years.
Yet, tonight, CT Group issued an updated statement which continues to claim the company “never did any work for, nor presented any research findings to, the Governor or her campaign.”
“C|T Group is committed to and complies with all laws and regulations in any jurisdiction in which it works and is confident that it has done so in this matter.
Indeed, relevant existing C|T employees and former employee Mark Fullbrook, are witnesses in this matter and they and C|T Group have fully, completely and voluntarily engaged with the US authorities in this matter, as they always do in any circumstance in which C|T Group’s assistance is sought by authorities.
C|T was engaged only by Mr. Herrera and only to conduct opinion research for him and no one else. It never did any work for, nor presented any research findings to, the Governor or her campaign. It has not been engaged by him since.
C|T Group understands that there are active legal proceedings against other individuals and entities. It would therefore be inappropriate to comment further.”
Mark Fullbrook is referred to as a former employee given he surrendered his directorships in the group in March and set up his own company from which he is presently managing the Conservative leadership campaign of Liz Truss.
Sarawak Report is writing to enquire of Mr Fullbrook whether Julio Herrera Velutini has donated to this campaign as he has already supported the Conservative party? We are also seeking confirmation as to whether he is listed for an honour in Boris Johnson’s resignation list.
Just ahead of the Platinum Jubilee it was announced that a “major international company”, Britannia Financial Group had joined the top category of ‘Platinum Donors’ supporting the £15 million costs of the Royal Pageant.
The level of the contribution has not been made public, however it was graded higher than the donations by mere ‘Pageant Partners’ such as Mastercard, Goldman Sachs, McDonald’s & John Lewis.
For those not familiar with Britannia Financial Group Limited, the royal pageant press release explained:
“Britannia Financial Group is a leading international financial services group headquartered in London…. Britannia services a diversified, international client base consisting of institutions, corporates, family offices and UHNWs [ultra high net worth individuals].”
The brief matches word for word a press statement put out a fortnight later (21st April) by the PR and lobbying firm Hawthorne Advisors, signalling the company’s longstanding position as a client of the agency which was founded by the current Conservative party chairman, Ben Elliot.
Elliot, a nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall, stepped aside from his management role at Hawthorne and his so-called ‘concierge’ company Quintessentially in 2020, putting his shares ‘in trust’ (to former employee and close friend Lady Dundas) following criticism that clients were gaining access to political and royal circles, often donating to both institutions sometimes in return for honours.
Following just that pattern, Britannia Financial Group Ltd, which was incorporated by Julio Herrera-Velutini in 2016, has also donated over half a million pounds to the Conservative party over the past two and a half years.
According to newspaper reports Herrera’s executive assistant at Britannia previously worked for Elliot, according to her LinkedIn profile which has since been redacted.
The donations have taken advantage of a controversial loophole that enables foreign nationals who are legally barred from financing British political parties, to do so indirectly through a UK incorporated company.
The Election Commission stated earlier this year that it has called for the loophole to be closed but that the government has so far not responded with any action.
Another such loophole is the inclusion on the Electoral Register of foreign nationals with voting rights in local elections, who then use this qualification to donate to national parties. In one example, a Putin connected Luxembourg businessman, Gerard Lopez, paid a record £400,000 to the Conservatives in 2016, he says to support their London mayoral campaign. The party accepted the controversial payment.
Earlier this month Lopez was charged by the Luxembourg authorities for alleged forgery relating to several hundred thousand euros which passed through a UK based Formula 1 team, Lotus F1 (later Renault F1), that he jointly owned in 2014. He has reportedly denied the charges.
Mr Herrera-Velutini, who holds his interest through a Geneva based trust company thereby obscuring the exact structure of the ownership, describes himself as the scion of a historical family with “a legacy in Banking & Finance for more than hundred and fifty years” in Venezuela.
However, there has been an outstanding warrant for his arrest in his home country since 2009, and on May 11th he abruptly resigned as a director of Britannia Financial Group (BFG) itself, a move which coincided with the eruption of media headlines in Puerto Rico about the official investigations into his alleged bribery of Wanda Vazquez-Garced (his son and brother continue as directors of the company).
After Sarawak Report enquired in June about the allegations and questioned why the banker has poured so much money into the Conservative party and Royal Pageant BFG’s legal counsel responded that the reports in the United States were “speculative” and based on “misunderstanding and misinformation” by “sensationalist media outlets in Puerto Rico”. They told Sarawak Report:
“Mr Herrera is not aware of any federal investigation or examination into him or Bancredito. Nor is there any reason why he should be subject to any such investigation given he has not engaged in any impropriety.”
Questioned about his donations to the Conservative party they replied
“Mr Herrera and Britannia are proponents of conservative values. Neither were advised to donate to the Conservative party. Ask you accept, Britannia’s donations were entirely lawful and made in full compliance with UK laws
Responding today to the filing of the charges against their client the lawyers updated with the statement:
“For the record, all the charges against our client are denied in full.
While the criminal process is underway, our client does not intend to comment further at this time.”
Records show that Britannia Financial Group Limited was registered dormant prior to filing its first audited accounts in mid-2020, when it described itself as a “holding company for global businesses within the financial services industry”.
The group subsequently developed a website, took on staff and acquired a number of multi-million pound subsidiaries, issuing shares totalling £200 million of nominal capital value. These moves notably followed the growing row that evolved between the banker and the Puerto Rican and federal authorities over their investigations into Bancredito.
The first BFG donation to the Conservative party consisted of £100,000 made on December 12th 2019, the day Boris Johnson won the election. Yet the company’s first submitted accounts the following August declared a £4.3 million loss for the preceding period, indicating the money ultimately came from its foreign shareholder Mr Velutini rather than company profits.
Britannia Financial Group’s lawyers have told Sarawak Report:
“as demonstrated by its accounts for the 15 months to 31st December 2019, Britannia is a profitable company and was not dormant at the time of the donations to the Conservative party. Moreover all donations were paid from funds generated within the UK”.
Analysis of BFG’s past company accounts make clear to the contrary that the money which has flowed into the British holding company has not been generated in the UK but entered through Switzerland, thanks to the injection of the foreign shareholder’s (Herrera-Velutini) cash.
The open source information about BFG’s foreign source of income is not the only potential Red Flag apparently ignored by the Conservative party, which tonight claimed the banker and his company had passed ‘thorough checks’ and screening by the party’s treasurers.
Julio Herrera-Velutini has for over a decade been evading criminal proceedings in his home country for alleged financial fraud, claiming the charges are politically motivated. He fled Venezuela in 2009 after being summoned for questioning following the collapse of the country’s Banco Real, which he had recently sold to a purported crony of the regime under Hugo Chavez.
Prosecutors in Caracas alleged the illiquidity of the bank owed to “the appropriation and diversion of resources” owing to “criminal activity carried out in 2008 and 2009 by those who were in charge”.
Mr Herrera-Velutini has filed a successful human rights claim against extradition requests with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, citing himself to be the subject of persecution by the sanctioned Venezuelan regime “within the framework of a State policy of harassment and persecution of entities and individuals participating in the financial and banking sector“.
Having fled to the United States he opened his new Bancredito International Bank & Trust Corp based in Puerto Rico in 2009 under the state’s off-shore banking provisions which allow for international banks to operate under favourable tax conditions but without engaging domestic customers.
Bancredito’s status is therefore that of a foreign bank and Mr Herrera-Velutini is a foreign national banned from donating in cash or kind to political parties in the United States.
According to extensive evidence and official papers sighted by Sarawak Report, pressure began to build on Bancredito from July 2019 with the launching of a routine examination of its operations by the state financial regulator the OCIF.
A Memorandum of Understanding reached between the bank and the OCIF in December 2021 reveals that the bank had pushed back heavily on the investigation during the course of multiple exchanges with Mr Herrera Velutini “challenging the validity of the processes followed by OCFI” and complaining of “lack of due process, arbitrary and capricious conduct, potential conflicts of interests, protracted examinations, harassment… and reputational damages, inter alia.”
Indeed, the DOJ court filing reveals how the banker tried repeatedly to avoid signing the MOU and was in fact recorded seeking to again bribe the present Governor of Puerto Rico with a $50,000 donation just last year to obstruct the investigations in the same manner he attempted with Wanda Vazquez in 2020.
Having failed, Bancredito agreed “without admitting or denying any findings of unsafe or unsound banking practices or violations of law or regulation relating to weaknesses in management and in the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and Anti Money Laundering Program“, Bancredito, of which Mr Herrera-Velutini is President, agreed in the memorandum to an extensive programme of reforms laid out by the regulator to be carried out within a period of one to six months on pain of fines and closure of the bank.
These included the appointment of three independent board members and special committee to supervise a raft of compliance and due diligence measures required under the law. The committee was also tasked with scrutinising all accounts and transactions since 2016 and to provide the regulator with its findings.
The reasons are clear. The OCIF claimed that its own examination of activities by the bank between October 2016 and March 2019 identified “multiple apparent violations of law .. related to reporting of suspicious activity and foreign bank accounts, and due diligence on foreign correspondent accounts, in addition to significant deficiencies in internal controls, independent testing, and supervision”.
The agency cited failure to comply with anti-money laundering regulations and the US Patriot Act against terrorism finance and stated that the bank had ” failed to file multiple SARs [Suspicious Activity Reports] and reported late twenty-two suspicious activity reports.”
By May of this year (with investigations into Herrera Velutini’s bribery already secretly before a Grand Jury) the media was reporting that the OCIF had moved to fine and prosecute Bancredito for failing to implement the MOU. The three independent directors were belatedly appointed but almost immediately two of them resigned.
As a result, the OCIF said in a complaint on 26th May, claims by the bank to have implemented the due diligence measures could not be verified.
In particular, the bank had committed to ‘de-risk’ [terminate] a number of suspicious Venezuelan bank accounts mainly related to Herrera-Velutini himself. Bancredito claims to hold $150 million under management, yet possesses far fewer than the average number of clients for a bank of equivalent size. according to the information passed to Sarawak Report.
In a ‘show cause’ document the OCIF demanded fines totalling $300,000 and called for the bank to agree to a voluntary liquidation following the production of the promised report into its past affairs – on pain of being taken to court.
Bancredito then appealed on the grounds it was given insufficient time to hire the professional staff required and that leaks from the investigation had caused those that did to resign. However, on June 3rd the OCIF responded by increasing the fine to $580,000 in the light of the further delays and repeating the threat to take the bank to court if it does not comply and agree to liquidate.
These ongoing battles with the regulators, about which information was inevitably passed to federal agencies and increasingly reported in the media raises questions as to why the standard vetting for major donors to the Conservative party failed to impede donations from a finance group also owned by Mr Herrera-Velutini?
The same question applies to CT Group. If Mr Herrera-Velutini responded to his problems by seeking to bribe the Governor of Puerto Rico is it not urgent to investigate his actions within the Conservative party and also to what extent CT Group itself may have accepted secret payments from third parties and even foreigners to fund or partially fund its many campaigns on behalf of senior Tory candidates?
For example, CT Group ran the mayoral campaign for Zac Goldsmith and claimed in 2019 the leadership campaign it staged for Boris Johnson was done for free. None other than Mark Fullbrook took ‘a sabbatical’ from the company, he claimed, to support Boris’s successful bid. Who is funding Liz Truss’s campaign and has Fullbrook declared his paymasters for the job?
There is also the concern about whether the bankers generosity may have lead to him being suggested for upcoming honours or given undue influence over government policy, for example concerning highly sensitive issues such as the so-called Government in exile of Juan Gerardo Guaidó? Herrera is known to sympathise with the rebel leader, whom the UK also continues to support against a decision by the rest of Europe to reject his legitimacy.
This foreign donor has certainly, through BFG, made a scale of contributions which, according to reports by the Sunday Times and others, make him eligible for entry into the so-called Leaders’ Group which has been given unparalleled access and influence in the party during the Chairmanship of Ben Elliot. Several of those donors have been revealed as Elliot’s own clients.
According to attendees who have spoken to Sarawak Report. Leaders Group members are rewarded with regular exclusive access to the Conservative leadership, including Government ministers, through dinner and breakfast events where they receive policy updates and are able to engage in dialogue and ask questions of the country’s key decision-makers.
Such access, of course, is of enormous commercial value and possibly of protective influence if misused in any way.