April 30, 2015

Browder, critic of Russian regime, details battle with Kremlin at ABA conference

For more than five years, American financier Bill Browder, once regarded as the largest foreign investor in Russia, has mounted a campaign against corruption and human rights violations in that former Communist country.

Bill Browder addreses the ABA Section of International Law Spring Meeting in Washington, DC.

On Wednesday, April 29, Browder brought that message to the American Bar Association Section of International Law 2015 Spring Meeting at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Starting in 1996 to 2005, by his own admission, Browder lived a “charmed life” in Russia, capitalizing on that country’s fertile ground for foreign investment and Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s free market embrace.

A nonlawyer with an MBA from Stanford University, Browder started Hermitage Capital Management with $25 million in assets in 1996 and eventually built the fund to $4.5 billion. As he described his financial ascent, Browder took advantage of the war that Putin, the longtime leader of Russia and now president, had with 22 oligarchs, a group that had control of the economy in the post-Communist era.

“Unfortunately, the charmed life ended when Putin won his war with the oligarchs,” Browder said, recalling the experience he encountered when he was detained for 15 hours and denied entry to Russia in 2005.

Browder, a New Jersey native who grew up in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, suggested he was willing to take his lumps to his financial position and ego. But that changed in 2007 after Russian authorities raided his lawyer’s office and seized papers and other documents.

Browder then hired Sergei Magnitsky, whom he described as the “smartest lawyer he knew” in Russia to determine why authorities were focusing on him. Magnitsky reportedly uncovered a $230 million fraud by Russian governmental officials. Magnitsky was subsequently arrested, imprisoned and asked to sign a confession that the fraud was conducted by him and Browder.

“We waited for the good guys to get the bad guys,” said Browder, who was found guilty by Russian courts and sentenced to nine years in abstentia for financial crimes. “It turned out in the Putin regime there are no good guys.”

Since then, Browder has made exposing Russian corruption and human rights violations his chief campaign. He successfully persuaded Congress and President Obama to enact the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, imposing visa bans and asset freezes on named officials believed to be involved in Magnitsky’s death and other violators of human rights in Russia.

In a Q&A period, Browder said wealth remains concentrated in Russia and controlled by Putin with a network of trustees. He urged lawyers to help with expanding the ban on travel and assets to other countries.

“We are working in all different countries trying to get law enforcement agencies chasing the money,” Browder said. “We are looking for lawyers in lots of countries to liaison with law enforcement."