Perhaps all you need to know to understand the essense of Bill Browder is what he carried with him in his briefcase when he lived in Putin’s Russia. “At all times,” he told me not long after we met, “I had $5,000 in cash in case I had to flee for the border and pay off the guards.”
Bill Browder’s stories are melodramas. They often begin with a ringing phone—or a knock on a door. In May of this year, for example, the American-born financier was bundled into a police car in Madrid by the Spanish police, who, acting on an Interpol warrant at the behest of Russian authorities, simply appeared outside his hotel room and took him away. “I was frightened this wasn’t an arrest but an illegal rendition to Moscow,” Browder said. (He was let go an hour later.) These moments of crisis are familiar to his 180,000 Twitter followers—“the army of Bill,” they are called—who worry about his safety in his adopted role as both human-rights advocate and financial sleuth, taking on Putin and his kleptocrats. “Vladimir Putin wants me dead,” he says almost every time he is interviewed.
Is there anyone, by now, who is unaware of Browder’s relentless crusade? At 54, he circles the globe helping governments recover millions that Russian oligarchs have illegally parked overseas. He has dodged six warrants seeking his arrest. He takes precautions in his daily routine, wary of possible security threats. His weapons are judicial and legislative: sanctions blocking the assets and the international travel of Russian criminals, murderers, and corrupt industrialists who have plundered their companies.
And he is succeeding. “Now every country knows the names of these guys,” he contends. “Now everyone who thought they could operate under the radar is discovering that you can’t. It started with [Special Counsel] Robert Mueller’s indictment of the 12 G.R.U. agents”—operatives from Russia’s military-intelligence service—“and they discovered that every e-mail they ever sent is available to the Justice Department. All of a sudden [the authorities] arrested a spy in Norway. They arrested two people who were getting ready to break into a chemical-weapons lab.
“Paul Manafort thought he could do all of this dirty shit and get away with it. Well, you know what? Every single thing he did has come out. If Trump has any secrets, the truth is going to come out. I don’t know if Trump has any secrets. But there is not going to be a secret left. While Trump is tweeting on his toilet about what a great guy Putin is, someone in the bowels of the U.S. Treasury is issuing regulations which basically [list the new names that should be added to the list of Russians who] should be sanctioned. It is crystallizing everywhere.”
At one time, William Browder was the largest foreign portfolio investor in Russia. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, his hedge-fund, Hermitage Capital, made a fortune investing in Russia as the country privatized its state-owned industries, despite the downside risk that the government, at any time and without warning, could seize assets, dilute stock shares, and arrest investors or their employees.
Browder would refer to the adrenaline rush in those days as the high of “the ten-bagger”—the euphoria that comes from knowing you’ve earned 10 times your initial investment. In 1994, at the age of 30, he had gone from being a scrappy Stanford grad fighting for a desk at Salomon Brothers to “Bill . . . could you come and brief George Soros?”
Today, Browder, who wrote a best-selling 2015 memoir, Red Notice, is tireless in recounting the story of how he became Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1. Browder’s narrative is astounding. How Putin, in 2005, barred him from Russia. How authorities raided the offices of Hermitage and its law firm, stole the company’s corporate seals and stamps, and rigged a bogus $230 million tax-rebate fraud, which they tried to pin on Browder’s 37-year-old tax adviser, Sergei Magnitsky. How—after trying to press Browder’s case against the officials who he believed were responsible—Magnitsky was hauled off to prison. And how, in 2009, he would die in a Moscow detention center, having been denied medical treatment and purportedly beaten to death.
“My life changed at that moment,” Browder has said frequently. “It became my mission to get revenge.” During one of the raids, a lawyer was pummeled and hospitalized. A Browder source named Alexander Perepilichny—who had provided crucial financial documents to aid Browder’s cause—later died mysteriously while jogging on the outskirts of London. Such are the perils of operating in Putin’s world—and Browder’s.
The political fallout from Magnitsky’s killing was profound. In seeking to avenge his colleague’s death, Browder, from his redoubt in London, spent three years poring over legal documents and financial records. He also lobbied U.S. legislators, human-rights organizations, and members of the Obama administration. The result: in 2012, Congress passed and Obama signed into law the Magnitsky Act. It denied visas to, and froze the holdings of, Russians who were judged responsible for, or financially benefited from, Magnitzky’s demise—as well as others who committed gross violations of human rights. (In retaliation, the Russian government halted its program allowing American adoptions of Russian children.) Four years later, the U.S. expanded the law, which now can be applied globally; Magnitzky provisions, for instance, are being considered against those who may have played a role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Through it all, Browder has paid a steep price for his efforts. Whenever traveling outside the U.K. (he renounced his U.S. citizenship and became a Brit in 1998), he is wary of an Interpol warrant. Russian courts have twice tried him in absentia and both times sentenced him to nine years in prison. Putin’s prosecutors have accused him of tax fraud and, preposterously, of murdering Magnitsky himself.
All of these threats, paradoxically, have given Browder even more of an incentive to make the rounds, push his crusade. “The more I am out there,” he told me, “the safer I am.”
The tale of how Browder made his fortune is worth repeating. The maverick investor, reportedly worth upwards of $100 million, is the grandson of Earl Browder, the head of the American Communist Party during F.D.R.’s presidency. But despite that family history, young Bill became an ardent capitalist. At the height of its success, Hermitage, which he co-founded in 1996 with the banker Edmond Safra, managed $4.5 billion of client investments in Russian companies.
Hermitage, of course, had its struggles. In 1998, Russia defaulted on its foreign debt. The ruble crashed. The company’s assets plummeted to $100 million. But over the next seven years the price of oil quadrupled. And Browder, determined to ride it out, made a killing, thanks to his major stake in Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned oil-and-gas colossus. By the early 2000s, he had decided on a brash move. He started a campaign to expose the endemic corruption at various Russian firms. He publicly charged an array of businessmen and officials, accusing them of looting their companies’ assets. Soon, alarmed that the oligarchs might try to assassinate him, Browder enlisted a security detail and began traveling in a three-car motorcade.
As Browder’s business thrived, so did his hubris. Despite his attempts to curb corporate graft, Browder spoke out favorably about Putin, telling The New York Times that he “has turned out to be my biggest ally in Russia.” Browder’s rationale for supporting him? “We want an authoritarian—one who is exercising authority over the Mafia and oligarchs.” During our many conversations, Browder would try to put these statements in context: Putin had promised “that he was going to restore order and stamp out the abuse by the oligarchs. Everyone was hoping that he was going to be true to that pitch.” Browder, meanwhile, said he was simply “trying to make all my money back.”
Earl and Raisa Browder became pariahs. In their home, they hung portraits of Stalin, Lenin, and Mao.
He would soon realize, though, that he was being played and that his status as a foreigner did not insulate him from the authorities’ wrath. In November 2005, after deplaning at Moscow’s main airport, he was detained by immigration officers, held overnight, and deported. He had become yet another wealthy businessman who had suddenly fallen out of Putin’s favor. As Browder recalled, he was literally and figuratively “the last person waiting for the baggage on the airline carousel.”
At our first session, in London, Bill Browder did not act like someone who feared for his life. I had expected to find elaborate security at his building. Instead, I was given a perfunctory glance and waved up to the Hermitage offices, which overlook London’s picturesque Finsbury Square. I began to wonder if there was a hidden security system in place, speculating, as others have, that Browder either was protected by or had a special relationship with M.I.6, Britain’s foreign-intelligence service. Curious, I asked him, point-blank, “Are you M.I.6?” He hesitated and then said, cryptically, “I work with so many levels of British law enforcement, I never know who is working for whom.” When I broached the subject again, months later, he bristled: “I am definitely not under British protection. I have to protect myself. I am not M.I.6. I am not C.I.A. I am not anything. I bet there are nine intelligence agencies listening as we speak. But that is because I am not an agent of anyone’s—I am a completely independent operator. If I were really an agent of M.I.6, why would I be having so many problems opening a criminal case [in the U.K. against the oligarchs]? Maybe this is a double fake-out! The Russians are accusing me of being a C.I.A. agent!”
With the passage of new laws in England, some oligarchs have felt the squeeze. Last May, Parliament—after the poisoning, in Salisbury, of former Russia spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, passed its own version of the Magnitsky Act. And yet the government appears ambivalent about investigating the $30 million in “illicit funds” that Browder contends have been laundered through British banks. “I have gone to every agency,” he said. “No one will take it on. It all stops with the higher-ups. It’s either massive incompetence or collusion.”
This fall, underlying tensions between Browder and the Brits came into stark relief when detective Jon Benton, the onetime head of the international-corruption unit looking into these suspicious dealings, made a surprising admission. He said he had received orders to stop his inquiry—from a more senior official with links to the Foreign Office. “I was approached and taken for a coffee,” Benton told The Sunday Telegraph, “and basically told Bill Browder is a pain in the neck and to leave it.” Browder was livid but not surprised: certain members of the government have reason to keep in with the Kremlin; some of the Russian business elite retain strong connections with England’s power players. Earlier this year, according to The New York Times, billionaire Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate suspected of having connections to organized crime, retained the lobbying help of a British lord, Gregory Barker—an associate of David Cameron—hoping to sway U.S. officials to lighten or remove stiff sanctions on Deripaska and his businesses. “The U.S. won’t respond to this kind of pressure,” Browder told me in November. “They’d look like they’re caving.” But back in England, Browder said, fuming, “We are still trying to get the U.K. to make a list of sanctioned individuals. They are stalling.”
Browder’s office resembles a small trading floor, with analysts sitting in rows of desks, staring intently at computer monitors. Many spend their time rifling through complex chains of transactions in far-flung foreign bank accounts to determine which ones can be traced to corrupt culprits. So far, Browder has sought to help two dozen nations recover their piece of the $230 million pie—the tax money paid to the Russian Treasury—that he alleges to have been stolen by Russian officials, moguls, and mobsters. A handful of countries, including Switzerland, France, and the Netherlands, have opened investigations. In September, the head of Denmark’s Danske Bank abruptly resigned after authorities, with an assist from Browder, opened a $234 billion money-laundering probe of its Estonian branch.
When Browder talks one-on-one, he radiates a nervous intensity. He is charming, abrasive, and tightly wound. His thoughts come so quickly that he often stutters. His predominant expression is one of steely impatience. While his bald pate and frameless glasses affect an accountant’s mien, his well-tailored suits speak to a life lived at the pinnacle of privilege.
The ideological fervor that defines his pursuit of Putin is reminiscent of that of Michael Milken, a number-crunching savant I wrote about in the 90s for Vanity Fair. Milken’s singular belief in the junk-bond market was visionary—and an affront to the Wall Street establishment. He eventually went to jail for securities fraud and other crimes. Browder, like Milken, is a chronic self–promoter, who conveys a sense that he is always playing for an angle, molding his story. Both men can be patronizing and imperious. Both are financial wizards—and renegades. When I mentioned to Browder that I saw in him a kind of parallel to Milken—in his sense of mission and in the seemingly willful blinders he wears as he consumes himself with financial arcana—he snapped at me: “Not remotely. He was a crook.”
Browder can be incurious and opaque, with little small talk and zero equivocation. In the first minutes we were together, I mentioned a name to Browder and, rather than answering me, he jumped to his feet and said, “I have a PowerPoint prepared on this very subject.” He disappeared and returned with glossy laminate boards that featured dazzling illustrations, cartoon thunderbolts, and captions with the whimsy of a Marvel comic.
Among reporters, Browder’s PowerPoint presentations are considered works of such flair and originality that David E. Hoffman, the former Washington Post Moscow bureau chief and author of The Oligarchs, still keeps a box of them in his garage. These slide decks, which enable Browder to shape a narrative as a form of performance, are his preferred mode of communication. “That was always my secret,” he told me. “We did PowerPoints. If you can present your case clearly and visually, anyone can understand it. No one has an attention span.”
It is an arduous slog, indeed, to follow a chain of laundered accounts (Russia to Switzerland to Dubai, for example) linked to various players (a crime syndicate, a corrupt tax official, an oligarch), linked in turn to a $20 million mansion outside of Moscow. But that is Browder’s métier. And where is all that money that was swiped from the taxes Hermitage paid to the Russian government? “Some has disappeared,” he said. “Some we are still looking for. But so far we have confirmed $200 million spread across the globe.”
When I returned to Browder’s offices a couple of days later, I was confronted with a scene reminiscent of mathematician John Nash’s shambolic shed in the movie A Beautiful Mind. For my benefit, Browder had taken piles of research data and PowerPoint printouts and covered every square inch of a 15-foot-long conference-room table. Pride of place was given to an intricate chart that outlined a scheme by an organized-crime ring to strip tax assets from the Russian Treasury. Nearby were boxes filled with photos of the thieves’ alleged collaborators: men from Russia’s Federal Security Service (the F.S.B.) and the Ministry of the Interior, and the Prosecutor General’s office, as well as an array of lawyers, dubbed “Criminal Executors.” Another PowerPoint deck bore the image of the cellist turned conductor Sergei Roldugin, head of the St. Petersburg House of Music. In 2015, when the Panama Papers were released (unearthing reams of leaked attorney-client documents that revealed various foreign shell companies), Roldugin’s yearly income was reported to be about $10 million and he was linked to offshore companies with cash flows of up to $2 billion. This drew attention to his close friendship with Vladimir Putin and the fact that Roldugin is the godfather of Putin daughter Maria. One of Browder’s investigators asked me, “How does a cellist get $2 billion in his bank account?”
“Do you know the myth of the firebird?” I asked Browder, referring to the classic folktale that for over a century has helped convey the Russian character. He did not. The story revolves around a “firebird,” which arrives from a distant land, glowing with promises and blessings yet carrying a portent of doom. “A friend named his fund Firebird,” Browder replied. “Now I get it.”
Before arriving in Russia, he had never read a word of Dostoyevsky nor any of the nation’s great literary works, which might have illuminated him about the Russian soul, its darkness, its fierce nationalism. He told me that when he met his current wife—whom he has referred to publicly by the pseudonym Elena, to protect her identity—she tried to get him to read a Chekhov story or two, to no avail.
At the top of her class at Moscow State University—Russia’s Harvard—Elena worked for an American P.R. firm representing the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the chairman of Yukos, one of Russia’s larger oil companies. She met Browder in January 2000. At the time, the Russian ruble had crashed and the oligarchs had embarked upon what Browder recalled as “an orgy of stealing.” Yukos—even amid all the embezzlement going on—stood out as one of the country’s most scandal-plagued companies. And Browder, trying to expose the widespread malfeasance (“I was the only person in Moscow crazy enough to speak publicly”), gave a presentation at the American Chamber of Commerce. Elena came to hear him.
He was intrigued by her and pursued her, and on their second date Browder mentioned an article he’d read in Foreign Affairs suggesting that U.S. authorities revoke the visas of Russia’s most corrupt businessmen. Browder pointed out that one guy they should go after was her company’s client, the head of Yukos. “The oligarchs are monsters, and you have to start somewhere,” he told her.
Despite his bold approach, they soon fell in love and got married, and not long after, Khodorkovsky, who was supporting some of Putin’s political opponents, was arrested. The government would seize Khodorkovsky’s 36 percent block of Yukos. He would be placed on trial and sent to prison. (In 2013, he was pardoned and released. He now lives in London, where he runs a foundation that supports journalists, some of whom have been targeted by Putin. “We’ve gone from being enemies to allies,” Browder said.) The oligarchs, Browder later noted, would loll around on their yachts, look at their TVs, and see their former peer—“a man far richer and smarter” than they were, in Browder’s estimation—sitting in a cage in a Russian courtroom. Browder and many others believe that, shortly thereafter, each oligarch made his way to the Kremlin to offer—or accept—a cut to government insiders. And as a result Putin became, by certain estimates, the world’s wealthiest man.
Last July 16, Browder was in Colorado, where he owns a vacation home. He was working on a new book about his campaign against Putin’s kleptocracy, and he needed some time for uninterrupted concentration. At 9:30 that morning, Browder told his young children, “Please, do not disturb me, no matter what.” Then, to avoid distractions, he put his mobile phone facedown. But before long, he noticed the phone come alive, shimmying silently on his writing desk.
Half a world away, in Helsinki, Trump and Putin were holding a joint press conference after their two-hour summit meeting. At one point, Trump made an assertion that stunned the world. He said he did not believe the Russian government had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election: “My [intelligence] people came to me. They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.” Putin made an equally puzzling statement. He said he would be willing to allow Mueller’s investigators to question the 12 Russians already indicted in his inquiry if Russia’s investigators were allowed to interrogate people they considered “of interest”—including none other than Bill Browder.
Putin’s overture, while novel, was hardly surprising. During the presidential race, Russian representatives had approached Donald Trump Jr. and dangled the offer of some juicy kompromat on Hillary Clinton. Then there had been a fateful June 2016 session at Trump Tower between Donald junior; his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner; Trump-campaign chairman Paul Manafort; and several Russian representatives, including attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, a longtime Browder bête noire with ties to the Kremlin.
The main topic at the meeting: Bill Browder and what had been his relentless pursuit to push through the Magnitsky Act. Browder and some of the investors in his fund, Veselnitskaya later admitted, were “the one and only subject matter of my discussion with Donald Trump Jr.” Manafort’s notes from the meeting refer to “Bill Browder” and “adoption.” It was clear that the Magnitsky sanctions had put a financial crimp in the bank accounts of Putin’s compatriots.
Browder’s eldest son, Joshua, was monitoring the Helsinki press conference from Palo Alto. The 21-year-old, who helps oversee his father’s digital operation, was taken aback when Putin, with an expression of feline self-satisfaction, declared: “Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes. . . . We have a solid reason to believe that some intelligence officers accompanied and guided these transactions, so we have an interest in questioning them.” Joshua immediately texted his father: “Now you have truly made it.” He heard nothing back. Then Joshua felt gut-punched. He saw Trump nod at Putin and call the idea of both sides questioning the other’s suspects as “an incredible offer.” The younger Browder recalled being “shocked. I was really concerned. I was picturing Department of Homeland Security agents coming for him.”
That bizarre morning, Browder finally answered his vibrating phone. “There were ladders of texts,” he remembered, “hundreds of tweets. I went on Twitter trying to assess what was happening.” Then, instinctively, he did what he always does at times like these: he booked himself on every TV show that checked in with him.
A week and a half after the summit, Browder was lying low. He would give the occasional speech, but for the most part he was “in hiding,” as a close aide described it, at his retreat in Colorado—city undisclosed. He agreed to meet me on the terrace of the Aspen Institute.
We talked about his upbringing as a descendant of Communists. “How much had that ‘red seed’ of your background,” I asked, “affected what you are doing now?” Browder paused before responding. In his book he had offered a jokey answer: “I would put on a suit and a tie and become a capitalist. Nothing would piss my family off more than that.” But was he, instead, deeply identifying with his family’s political past? Is that what drew him to Russia? “No,” he answered quickly. “I wanted to make money.”
He grew up, he said, in “a strange, academic, left-wing family.” He had longed for a close relationship with his father, a bond which eluded him. Felix Browder, who died two years ago, had been a mentor to many of the most influential math minds of the 20th century. He was renowned for his work in the abstract field of nonlinear partial differential equations. “My father didn’t throw the baseball around,” Browder recalled. He got his dad’s attention, he said, only “when my fund made its first billion.” In his basement, Felix kept 35,000 books. “We would go out for ice cream,” Bill Browder once observed, “and then we would go to the bookstore.”
There were taboo subjects in the Browder household: most notably, his grandparents’ avid support of Joseph Stalin. Rarely, if ever, did the elder Browder entertain his son’s questions about Grandpa Earl. “He was not the easiest of fathers. What he talked about, mainly, was what crooks most people were. And if you asked him a question, it was just the facts.” Browder believed that it was the inviolate integrity of numbers that had driven his father and his siblings to pursue careers in mathematics. Felix became the chairman of the math department at the University of Chicago; his two brothers led the math departments at Princeton and Brown. (Bill’s older brother, Thomas—who entered the University of Chicago at age 15—is a pre-eminent particle physicist.)
Bill Browder’s were no ordinary grandparents. Earl Browder, a Kansas native who was active in the American Communist movement, was invited to the Soviet Union to provide assistance as a labor organizer after the Bolshevik Revolution. There, he met Raisa Berkman, one of the first Jewish women to attend law school in Leningrad. In the 1920s, Raisa was tasked with condemning counterrevolutionaries. The couple eventually married and made their home in the States, where Earl Browder became head of the American Communist Party and twice ran for president, appearing on the cover of Time in 1938.
That history is described in Bill Browder’s autobiography. What he doesn’t mention, however—and didn’t investigate until recently—is the fact that his grandparents were more than merely important allies of Stalin’s regime. It turns out that in their first decade together in America, Earl Browder—according to the Venona Papers, the U.S.-British intelligence community’s reports on the U.S.S.R.’s internal coded wartime cables—was a top recruiter of American spies for the K.G.B. (Raisa and Earl’s sister may have been recruiters as well. The family nanny was supposedly spying on the Browders and reporting back to the Russians.) Though Senator Joe McCarthy and others didn’t know all this, they interrogated Earl Browder nevertheless during the Red Scare of the 1950s.
While we were together I told Browder a fact that I learned from his cousin, historian Laura Browder, who is writing a book on their family: Earl and Raisa hung portraits of Stalin, Lenin, and Mao in their home despite the fact that Stalin had ordered the assassination of Raisa’s first husband, the former editor of Pravda. “I am hearing this for the first time,” Bill responded. “I don’t know what to make of it.” The couple became McCarthy-era pariahs in their Yonkers, New York, community. According to Laura Browder: “The dentist would no longer treat them. Their neighbors turned their back.”
Such was the atypical American home in which Felix was raised. (As Hitler came to power, Felix’s future wife, Eva—Bill’s mother—had been put up for adoption in Austria and sent to America. She later reunited with her mother in the U.S. Eva would eventually become one of the first women to be accepted at M.I.T.) Bill Browder told me, “I would have liked to ask my father, ‘Why did your father not renounce the atrocities of Joseph Stalin? What did it feel like to you when he was smeared in the McCarthy era?’ My father was not the kind of person you could ever ask about any of that. He was a genius. Geniuses are lopsided. He had an I.Q. of 200 and an E.Q. that was a lot less. We were not a family that ever discussed feelings.”
The armchair psychologist’s view of Browder’s inner life might be seen as a Freudian tangle: a grandson yearning to eclipse the family patriarch’s notoriety; a son seeking the approval of a distant father; a man hoping to prove his own worth by succeeding on his own terms. In the end, Browder, like his grandfather, would become largely defined by his ties to a cold-blooded Russian despot.
When I explored this with Browder, he insisted that his motivations for making Russia his home were much less complicated. “You want to put a family overlay on it?” he said. “I was looking to go back to my roots. I did not feel that I belonged anywhere in America. We were never really a family that belonged.” And so he followed in his forebears’ footsteps. “My grandfather was a justice fighter. I go to Russia and I find worse injustice than he had ever discovered. My task was investing people’s money. But this was far beyond that. I became this sort of crusader.” I pointed out that his grandfather had worked for Stalin and suborned treason. Browder agreed. “For me, the most disturbing thing was that he was supporting Stalin. Stalin was a genocidal maniac.” And what of his father’s double life? “My father did not see it as a double-identity household. It wasn’t like it was a version of The Americans and he was the daughter aware her parents were spies. All of this stuff has come out only recently.”
Is Putin, I asked, a 21st-century Stalin? “No,” he insisted. “I see him as a modern-day Pablo Escobar. Putin has no ideology whatsoever. Putin is pedestrian. All he wants is money and to hurt his enemies. He is straightforward. That is what makes him so vulnerable.”
It is one of the strangest chapters in the Bill Browder saga—one that encapsulates the whole narrative. In 2013 federal prosecutors, prompted by research supplied by Browder, lodged a civil suit against a Russian corporation called Prevezon, registered in Cyprus but owned by a mysterious real-estate kingpin named Denis Katsyv—the son of a former Moscow-area transportation minister. Katsyv was advised by the ubiquitous Natalia Veselnitskaya. “They had 20 lawyers on their side,” Browder recalled, “but she was the lead warrior, the scowling alligator.”
The Prevezon case, a byzantine legal thicket, is as knotty as Crime and Punishment. Several years ago, Browder met Bill Alpert, the redoubtable investigative reporter for Barron’s, who specializes in money-laundering. Alpert would spend late hours feeding long spreadsheets of mysterious fund transfers into his database of New York’s private and commercial properties. “I keep all kinds of data banks of possible smelly transactions,” Alpert told me. “I stare at my screen and try to figure out where the dirty money flows. These kinds of shell-company transactions are like the ones used to purchase many apartments in Trump properties.”
One day, Alpert happened to be on his computer, working with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a network of investigative news outlets, to scour through leaked bank documents showing Russian money routed through Moldova. “Suddenly,” Alpert remembered, “up popped 20 Pine Street, in Manhattan’s financial district. This one was like, ‘Bingo.’ Not only was Prevezon named as the owner of [condos at] 20 Pine, but also the officers of the company.” He came to believe, and informed Browder, that the $4.7 million used to buy the units had come from the $230 million Her-mi-tage swindle.
In the fall of 2008, Browder had researched the most renowned legal experts on money laundering. One name came up repeatedly: a New York attorney who had had an impeccable reputation working for Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau. His name: John Moscow, a partner at BakerHostetler, whom I’ve reported on in the past. “A money-laundering expert with a last name of Moscow,” Browder recounted, shaking his head. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Moscow, Browder said, came up with a strategy to obtain financial documents to take to Manhattan prosecutors. Two months later, Magnitsky was arrested and thrown in prison.
Not long after that, according to Browder, Moscow stopped returning his calls. (Moscow declined to comment to Vanity Fair.) Undeterred, Browder brought in new attorneys to represent him. And as the case moved toward trial, Browder received word that Moscow and BakerHostetler had been hired by Prevezon to defend the Russian firm against the government’s legal action.
What followed were four years of claims and counterclaims, and blizzards of subpoenas. (Eventually, a federal appeals court ruled that Moscow and Baker-Hostetler would be disqualified from participating in the case due to “a conflict of interest.”) The New Yorker would report that over the course of the litigation Veselnitskaya’s client Denis Katsyv would fork over some $40 million to argue what would have been, at best, a $14 million civil suit. A portion of that money went to BakerHostetler and the opposition-research firm Fusion GPS, headed by former Wall Street Journal reporter Glenn Simpson. Simpson, effectively on the payroll of Katsyv and Prevezon (through BakerHostetler), helped create a 600-plus-page dossier about, yes, Bill Browder.
When word later emerged that Veselnitskaya and Simpson were both basically working for the same client, eyebrows were raised among Russia hands, journalists, and legal watchdogs. This was the same Natalia Veselnitskaya who would meet in Trump Tower with representatives of the president-to-be’s campaign. This was the same Glenn Simpson who had hired former M.I.6 agent Christopher Steele to investigate Trump’s alleged Russian connections (and, as it turned out, possible sexual adventures). Indeed, in an effort to bash Bill Browder, great sums were being lavished on legal teams on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 2016, Fusion GPS finalized its voluminous document, portions of which began to circulate in the press. Around this time, I asked an expert on Russian politics I knew for his opinion of Browder. “A total crook,” he told me. “Don’t believe a word he writes in Red Notice. He stole the money from his company and had Magnitsky murdered.” Such allegations were absurd, but people spread the dirt. An anti-Browder memo made its way to Dana Rohrabacher, the Republican congressman—voted out in the midterms—who is sometimes called Putin’s closest Washington ally. It had reportedly come from Russia’s deputy prosecutor, Viktor Grin, whose superior is close to Veselnitskaya. “That memo,” Browder told me, “had talking points that had been prepared by Glenn Simpson.” (Simpson declined to comment.)
At the same time, Browder’s chief public-relations adviser, Juleanna Glover, said she began to get probing phone calls: “Reporters were asking me strange questions about Bill’s businesses. It soon became clear that he was being smeared by a group of people who wanted to undo the Magnitsky Act.” Browder had become the target of an organized defamation campaign, stoked by Prevezon and extending to a coterie of lawyers, accountants, and others with Russian ties.
To counter the attack, Browder prepared yet another PowerPoint. But the man who had been so adept at getting press attention couldn’t persuade journalists to write about his assertion that he was being framed. His story sounded far-fetched and self-obsessed.
Some believed that Browder had had it coming. For years, he had played a double game with the Russians: lambasting the oligarchs yet profiting from the corrupt system. He had made his name as an American hedge-fund savant, then renounced his citizenship. He had enriched himself and his clients by skating on the gray ice of arcane tax shelters, property deals, and other vehicles used by the wealthy. And yet he had always managed to remain aboveboard, his reputation intact. “I had thousands of investors, and everything we do has to pass a strict legal review for the regulators,” he told me. Outside of Russia, “no one has ever brought a successful court action against me.”
Increasingly isolated, he was surprised in early July 2017 when his cell phone rang while he was changing planes in Chicago. It was Jo Becker, from The New York Times. “She said to me, ‘Do you know a lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya?’ ‘Do I ever!’ I said. It was a gift from God. I spent a long time on the phone with her and then asked her, ‘What are you going to do with this?’ She said, ‘You’ll see.’ ” Within hours, Becker and two Times colleagues broke the story of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, at which Veselnitskaya had gone on at length about Browder and the sanctions. She had also come to New York then as part of her ongoing defense of Prevezon. And a year later the Justice Department quietly offered a deal that Prevezon’s lawyers jumped at: the company agreed to pay a modest fine of $6 million, without admitting fault. (“You could connect the dots from a bunch of banks in Russia to Moldova to New York,” Browder says. “That was the conclusion that the Justice Department came to. And their evidence was admitted into court and eventually they paid a fine rather than plea-bargain.”) Veselnitskaya played it as a win. “This is almost an apology from the government,” she told the Russian newspaper Izvestia.
Browder remains a marked man. He knows that over the last four years at least 14 Putin detractors have died in suspicious ways in the U.K. alone. Nonetheless, his thirst for vengeance has not been slaked. In a final, follow-up meeting in New York City, we talked at his hotel, and he asserted that every major Russian money-launderer—and their many proxies in the West—was “on our radar.” He was heading to Washington later that day, in fact, to try to get additional culprits added to the Magnitsky list.
“Basically,” he said, “we are going to make them pay dearly for what they have done. There need to be consequences for these enablers”—meaning the oligarchs’ circle of surrogates, lawyers, legislators, and P.R. people in America, Britain, and elsewhere. “I have more disdain for the enablers than for the villains. If you want to go work on the other side—and if the U.S. government is not going to do anything—we will.”
“Have you told all of this to Robert Mueller?” I asked him. Again, Browder hesitated. “I am not addressing that,” he said. It was the only time we were together that he refused to answer a question.
Browder checked the time and apologized for having to rush off. I watched him as he departed, pushing two small wheelie bags along the slick marble floor of the Park Hyatt. He then vanished into the crowd on West 57th Street.