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Representative Steve Cohen Wants to Build a New Weapon to Fight Kleptocrats

Tennessee Representative Steve Cohen

British lawyers have long helped cor­rupt oli­garchs pro­tect their ill-got­ten loot. The Tennessee Democrat wants to hold these enablers to account.

Over the past few months, a new range of sanc­tions have begun rip­pling across the West, tar­get­ing a mot­ley crew of Russian oli­garchs, all of whom have prof­it­ed from their rela­tion­ship with the Kremlin and pushed Moscow’s inter­ests abroad. But last week, in a lit­tle-noticed sal­vo out of Washington, a new class of scofflaws are sud­den­ly feel­ing the heat of poten­tial sanc­tions: the British lawyers who’ve spent years act­ing as hand­maid­ens to pro-Kremlin billionaires.

In a let­ter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Representative Steve Cohen called for the United States final­ly to “hold to account those enablers” behind the “unscrupu­lous work” ben­e­fit­ing oli­garchs. Specifically, the Tennessee Democrat sin­gled out the British bar­ris­ters who’ve spent years help­ing Russian oli­garchs smoth­er the jour­nal­ists pok­ing into their illic­it wealth—and help­ing turn the United Kingdom into the go-to juris­dic­tion in which to file friv­o­lous law­suits against any­one look­ing into their financing.

The U.K.’s well-earned rep­u­ta­tion as a cen­ter of “libel tourism” is hard­ly a new one. It’s based pri­mar­i­ly on wide-open libel laws that allow oli­garchs to file as many “vex­a­tious law­suits” (also called “strate­gic law­suits against pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion,” or “SLAPP” suits) as they’d like. But Cohen is sud­den­ly the high­est-pro­file American to call out Britain’s legal indus­try for its role enabling Russian oligarchs—and to high­light direct­ly how British lawyers have become U.S. nation­al secu­ri­ty threats. “Among the worst such enablers have been cer­tain lawyers in the United Kingdom,” Cohen wrote. “Despite our close ties with the United Kingdom, the nature of its libel laws and the vast amount of blood mon­ey in its finan­cial sys­tem make it an ide­al place for oli­garchs to abuse the law to harass and intimidate.”

Nor did Cohen stop at call­ing out the indus­try as a whole. The con­gress­man specif­i­cal­ly point­ed to a rogues’ gallery of British lawyers who’ve “enabled malign activ­i­ties of Russian oli­garchs.” Among the lawyers sin­gled out were those help­ing now-sanc­tioned Russian oli­garchs tar­get inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Catherine Belton, whose recent book detailed the rise of assort­ed pro-Kremlin fig­ures. Cohen fur­ther iden­ti­fied Keith Schilling of the noto­ri­ous firm Schillings, specif­i­cal­ly for his work defend­ing Jho Low, a Malaysian nation­al and one of the great­est klep­to­crats of the past few decades. As a result of their years help­ing prop up some of the shadi­est fig­ures across the globe, Cohen called for these British lawyers specif­i­cal­ly to be barred from the U.S. and to make their visa bans public.

The entire let­ter is, in many ways, unprece­dent­ed. In effect, Cohen has called for the U.S. to begin expand­ing its sanc­tions regime not just to the oli­garchs feast­ing on illic­it wealth but to their bag­men resid­ing as cit­i­zens of one of America’s clos­est allies. (While Cohen’s pro­pos­al isn’t tech­ni­cal­ly a for­mal sanc­tion, the dis­tinc­tions are large­ly cos­met­ic; sim­i­lar sanc­tions-by-anoth­er-name have already been applied to cor­rupt oli­garchs and crooked politi­cians else­where.) After all, these oli­garchs don’t exist in a vac­u­um. For years, they’ve relied on these gate­keep­ers to Western finan­cial sys­tems not only to laun­der their wealth but to keep it safe from any pry­ing eyes that may come call­ing. And few have been such loy­al ser­vants to these oli­garchs as British lawyers.

Nor is Cohen alone. Not only did anti-oli­garch cam­paign­er Bill Browder echo Cohen’s call, but in the past few months a grow­ing cho­rus in Washington has raised an alarm about Britain’s legal sys­tem. Think-tank reports, con­gres­sion­al hear­ings, reports of back­room diplo­mat­ic pres­sure: American atten­tion on Britain’s role as the cen­ter of illic­it Russian wealth is sud­den­ly focused in a way it’s nev­er been before. And giv­en the clear link­ages between klep­to­crat­ic wealth and nation­al security—as seen most espe­cial­ly in (but hard­ly lim­it­ed to) Ukraine—American offi­cials’ new­found inter­est in drain­ing the U.K. of its pro-oli­garch indus­tries is unlike­ly to dissipate.

There is ample rea­son to fol­low Cohen’s lead. Even after two months of dev­as­ta­tion in Ukraine—which has focused unpar­al­leled atten­tion on “Londongrad” and the U.K.’s cen­tral role as a hub for all the ser­vices oli­garchs need—British law­mak­ers have hard­ly made any progress is tight­en­ing the laws that allow these lawyers free rein to stanch and sti­fle inves­ti­ga­tions. As of now, poten­tial reforms remain firm­ly in the plan­ning stages. Even with British leg­is­la­tors say­ing the right things—and even with improve­ments else­where, such as the expan­sion of real estate trans­paren­cy and the strength­en­ing of sanctions—journalists still remain vul­ner­a­ble to deep-pock­et­ed oli­garchs and the advan­tages their filthy lucre offers them when­ev­er they want to manip­u­late the British courts the same way they’ve turned myr­i­ad oth­er British indus­tries to their own benefit.

Britain is hard­ly some anom­aly in this space. Western nations spent years rac­ing to grab a slice of this oli­garchic cap­i­tal, loos­en­ing reg­u­la­tions and tight­en­ing pro­tec­tions to attract the kinds of malign wealth Russian oli­garchs know well. Even sup­pos­ed­ly clean coun­tries like Canada and Australia took part in this transna­tion­al race to the bot­tom. And if any­thing, it’s the U.S. that cur­rent­ly chal­lenges Britain for the pro-klep­to­crat­ic crown. Real estate and lux­u­ry goods, pri­vate equi­ty and hedge funds, anony­mous shell com­pa­nies and anony­mous trusts—the U.S. spent decades pro­vid­ing just as many ser­vices as its British coun­ter­parts for any­one look­ing to laun­der any ill-got­ten gains, with no ques­tions asked. American lawyers are, in many ways, no dif­fer­ent from their British counterparts.

But even while plen­ty of reforms are still required in the U.S., it’s increas­ing­ly clear that the pre­vi­ous era of America being per­fect­ly open to oli­garch wealth may be behind us. Between the White House’s recent anti-cor­rup­tion strat­e­gy doc­u­ment, the for­ma­tion of the bipar­ti­san Counter-Kleptocracy Caucus, and the loom­ing trans­paren­cy reforms in are­nas such as real estate, the U.S. has made stu­pen­dous strides and is demon­strat­ing a fer­vent devo­tion to clean­ing up its own mess. (Unsurprisingly, Cohen has been anoth­er leader in this area: The recent­ly pro­posed ENABLERS Act, which would place anti-mon­ey-laun­der­ing require­ments on U.S. lawyers, has Cohen as a co-sponsor.)

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With Cohen’s new pro­pos­al to effec­tive­ly sanc­tion the pro-oli­garch lawyers holed up in places like London, the U.S. appears increas­ing­ly like­ly to use what­ev­er lever­age it can to go after the Western foot sol­diers help­ing oli­garchs, regard­less of where they may be. As well it should: After all, if the great­est nation­al secu­ri­ty cri­sis in gen­er­a­tions isn’t enough to move British leg­is­la­tors final­ly to tack­le the oli­garchic hench­men in their own back­yard, maybe it’s time for the U.S. to start swing­ing a far big­ger counter-klep­toc­ra­cy stick—regardless of whom it hits.

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