A billionaire accused by British politicians of being a suspected Russian agent has turned to the American courts in an attempt to “vindicate his reputation”, BuzzFeed News can reveal.
Christopher Chandler, the 58-year-old New Zealand–born founder of a think tank that had a significant influence on the Brexit debate, claims that a private investigator based in Washington, DC, was the original source of “demonstrably false” allegations of money laundering, organised crime, and Russian espionage against him and his brother, Richard, that caused a sensation in London earlier this year.
Chandler, a financier based in Dubai, is suing Donald Berlin and his company, Investigative Consultants, Inc., for $15 million (about £11.6 million) in damages. The libel case was filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia last month and is reported here for the first time.
“Mr Chandler and his brother have never been spies or engaged in espionage for any country, let alone Russia,” the lawsuit states.
The US legal action adds another extraordinary twist to a story that has gripped British politics.
Chandler became a figure of intrigue in late 2017 after his think tank, the Legatum Institute, became closely associated with Brexit-supporting cabinet ministers. Curiosity turned to alarm when word spread that Chandler had allegedly worked for Russian intelligence. At a time of heightened anxiety about Russian aggression in the West, the possibility that a Kremlin ally had penetrated the top levels of British politics struck many in Westminster as an urgent threat to national security.
Chandler adamantly denied the claims, which he says have caused huge damage to his reputation and business. In launching the US lawsuit, his lawyers have put documents setting out these claims in detail into the public domain for the first time.
The proceedings against Berlin will expose Chandler’s background and business activities to a degree of scrutiny that the billionaire has spent his career avoiding.
The lawsuit claims that Berlin, while portraying himself as an experienced investigator with good sources, defrauded customers by providing worthless background reports that he put together by “inventing salacious narratives from his own imagination and weaving those false narratives together with manipulated information from the public domain”.
According to the lawsuit, Berlin was approached by Prince Albert of Monaco’s intelligence adviser to conduct a background check on the Chandlers in 2002, when the brothers lived in Monte Carlo. The suit claims Berlin tried to defraud the prince by producing a fabricated report. It allegedly included details lifted word-for-word from old news articles Berlin found on the internet, while other details, the suit claims, were inspired by “outdated spy novels”.
Berlin is contesting the claim. According to his lawyers, he is a small-business owner with a high-level US government security clearance who simply carried out a background check as requested by a client 15 years ago. They say Chandler has tried to intimidate him into providing a false retraction, but that he refused to go along with it.
At the end of last year, an extraordinary set of documents began circulating in Westminster.
An 87-page dossier, which appeared to be a mishmash of historical files held by the Monaco authorities on Christopher and Richard Chandler, was given to several newspapers, and parts of it were shown to several MPs from both major parties. It included copies of the Chandlers’ New Zealand passports, surveillance memos, and reports detailing their alleged personal and business history. Parts of the dossier were so badly reproduced that they were hard to read, but the thrust was unmistakable: From the early 1990s, the Chandlers were allegedly major figures in a vast international network that concealed illicit activity by powerful Russians.
Although the information was more than a decade old, its relevance didn’t need explaining to those who saw the dossier. Christopher Chandler’s Legatum Institute, operating out of a Georgian townhouse in Mayfair, was at the time closely involved with senior Conservative Eurosceptics pushing for a hard Brexit. Through its trade expert, Shanker Singham, a former Washington lobbyist known in Westminster as “the Brexiteers’ brain”, the institute had regular contact with ministers and senior officials working on the UK’s exit from the European Union. With that sort of high-level access on a matter of such political sensitivity, questions about the background of Legatum’s founder demanded to be taken seriously.
Journalists began digging into the allegations in the dossier. Several newspapers ran stories linking Chandler to Russia; MPs asked questions in parliament. Legatum tried to push back, issuing statements denying that Chandler had any involvement with the Russian state or that he had a Brexit agenda. It brought in James Bethell, a Tory hereditary peer, to handle PR, and effectively shut down its work on Brexit policy. Singham left for another think tank.
On May 1, with Westminster on edge after the Skripal poisoning, the Tory MP Bob Seely rose in parliament during a debate on sanctions and anti–money laundering. A former journalist and soldier, Seely told the House of Commons that Chandler was suspected by French and Monégasque authorities of working for Russian intelligence.
Seely told the Commons he’d seen “brief, terse, factual files, listing activities, associations, and judicial actions. They have been authenticated by senior French intelligence sources and by British and American counterparts familiar with their contents”.
Seely said he was “confident that these documents are genuine”. Ben Bradshaw, a Labour MP who was also briefed on the allegations in the dossier, urged the UK authorities to investigate. Chris Bryant, another Labour MP, added: “I have seen the papers as well and I have come to the same conclusion.”
The MPs’ comments sparked an international media storm. Responding in an article in the Times, Chandler said the allegations were false and defamatory. He criticised the politicians for using parliamentary privilege, which protects them from being sued for defamation, to impugn his reputation without allowing him to see the document. They were “degrading public discourse” to undermine a perceived Brexit adversary, he said.
A week later, Chandler gave a long interview to the Sunday Times, perhaps the first he’d ever done, in which he spoke of his shock and anguish at being falsely accused. It was then that Chandler saw the mysterious dossier for the first time, when a reporter shared it with him. “He shook visibly as he spent several hours reading and analysing the report with his lawyers,” the newspaper said.
The Chandlers’ own narrative — expressed on corporate websites and in the few articles they cooperated with over the years — is one of shrewd, principled investor-philanthropists who prefer not to talk about their success.
Their story begins in a small farming community near Hamilton, New Zealand. Their father was a beekeeper who had fought in the Second World War, their mother a Croatian immigrant. Christopher was born in January 1960; Richard is a year and a half older. When the brothers were young, their parents set up an upmarket furniture store in Hamilton. After Christopher did a law degree at the University of Auckland, he and his brother took over their parents’ business. They sold it for $10 million and, in 1986, moved the family to Monaco. They were still in their twenties.
In two decades, the brothers turned the proceeds from the sale of their parents’ store into a huge international fund with holdings in Asia, Eastern Europe, and South America. Their first deal outside New Zealand, according to a sympathetic 2006 profile in Institutional Investor magazine, was the $26.7 million purchase of an office block in Hong Kong in 1987. In the 1990s, the Chandlers acquired stakes in several Russian energy and industrial companies, including the gas company Gazprom, during a wave of privatisations after the fall of communism. At one point, they were among the largest foreign investors in Russia.
In this telling, the Chandlers invested only their own money, took calculated bets on undervalued assets, and held on to them patiently until they appreciated, using their leverage to push for Western-style governance reforms and shareholder rights. By the mid-2000s, Institutional Investor said, they had generated returns of more than $5 billion.
Despite the brothers’ phenomenal success, they remained virtually unknown even in financial circles. They didn’t own football teams or appear in newspapers’ society pages or rich lists. They almost never gave interviews. They had barely any web presence. There were few published photographs of them. In his interview with the Sunday Times in May, Christopher Chandler said it was a mistake not to have cultivated a public profile. It aroused suspicion where there was nothing suspicious. “It’s like having a blank canvas,” he told the newspaper. “If you don’t fill it with something, other people are going to.”
In this biographical vacuum — unknown to the Chandlers — a radically different explanation for their wealth had emerged in the early 2000s, when the brothers lived in Monaco and they came to the attention of Prince Albert’s personal intelligence adviser, an American named Robert Eringer.
Eringer wasn’t a conventional spy. Born in California in 1954, the son of a Disney illustrator, he has led a career including stints as a bartender, investigative journalist, literary agent, spy novelist, freelance FBI counterintelligence operative, and blogger. In memoirs and on his personal website, Eringer styles himself as a globe-trotting raconteur with a taste for fine wine, five-star hotels, and clandestine adventures. He apparently stumbled into the intelligence world after befriending a former senior CIA officer in the late 1980s.
In a self-published memoir, The Spymaster & Me, Eringer claimed he was recruited by Prince Albert II to be his personal intelligence adviser over drinks at the Hotel Columbus in Monaco in the summer of 2002. According to Eringer’s account, Prince Albert was eager to rid the principality of shady characters and asked Eringer to help. For a fee of 80,000 euros a quarter, Eringer agreed to set up a covert unit that would investigate prominent residents, vet public officials, and build relationships with foreign intelligence agencies such as the CIA and MI6. He operated outside formal government structures, working from an office on London’s Marylebone High Street to avoid detection, and styled himself as “Agent 001” of the “Monaco Intelligence Service”.
One of Eringer’s first targets, he recounts in The Spymaster & Me, was the Chandlers. Eringer believed the brothers were suspicious partly because so little was known about them and their apartment building was mostly empty. At best, he figured, they were running an unregistered commodities business. But he thought they might be laundering money for Russian criminals. Eringer began investigating the brothers.
According to Chandler’s lawsuit, Eringer’s decision to investigate them began a sequence of events that led to Chandler being accused of being a Russian spy in the UK more than a decade later. The dossier that circulated in London late last year consisted of material drawn from Eringer’s investigation, including Eringer’s own November 2004 writeup about the findings of the probe and the contentious background reports from Berlin. Some of these documents have been entered into evidence in the US libel claim by Chandler’s lawyers. Eringer declined to comment when contacted by BuzzFeed News.
In his 2004 report, Eringer said he’d had the brothers put under surveillance. The Chandlers lived a lavish lifestyle on the Riviera, according to Eringer’s account, with palatial waterfront homes, speedboats, a fleet of top-end German cars, and Sikorsky helicopters, and they were intensely secretive. Their 14-storey seafront headquarters was empty except for the top two floors, and inquiries from estate agents interested in renting out apartments in the block were always rebuffed. A roof garden was shrouded in skirting and foliage to the extent that “if one was to fly over on a helicopter and there was a party for 150 people on the roof you probably wouldn’t see anybody”, Eringer wrote.
Eringer also commissioned a background investigation “at considerable expense” from “special sources with a proven ability to access the Russian SVR [foreign intelligence agency]’s registry”. And what this background check allegedly discovered was alarming.
In the early 1990s, the report said, the Chandlers were recruited by the SVR’s London bureau chief. From then on, they were at the centre of a vast offshore financial operation that moved money and held shares for Russian politicians and crime gangs. Among the transactions it described was one in which the Chandlers secretly held $10 million worth of shares in the oil company Yukos on behalf of President Vladimir Putin.
The brothers didn’t just handle financial transactions for powerful Russians, the report continued. They also participated personally in spying operations in the south of France. On several occasions, it was claimed, Christopher Chandler left or picked up “dead drops” in French cities for undercover agents, containing personal documents, cash, and shortwave radios.
So important were the Chandlers to their Russian patrons, it alleged, they enjoyed the protection of politicians all the way up to the top of the Kremlin. In 1999, the report said, Richard Chandler was awarded the “third class” Russian order for “service for the fatherland”.
Chandler denies all of this. He and his brother have never engaged in money laundering or organised crime, his lawsuit against Berlin asserts. They’ve never had relationships with the politicians mentioned — including Putin. And they’ve never had anything to do with Russian intelligence.
On Sept. 11, a letter addressed to Donald Berlin arrived by FedEx at his home in rural Loudoun County, Virginia, about 40 miles northwest of Washington, DC. “We write on behalf of our client, Christopher Chandler,” it began.
Initially, after Bob Seely’s intervention in parliament, Chandler attributed the allegations against him to a smear campaign by rivals in Russia when he did business there in the early 2000s. Several months later, however, his lawyers had arrived at a new theory: One of Eringer’s investigators had made it all up.
Chandler’s lawyers alleged that Berlin had concocted an entirely false history about the brothers in an attempt to trick Prince Albert, through Eringer, into paying nearly $100,000 for additional bogus investigations.
“From the beginning Berlin knew he did not have Swiss or Russian human intelligence or other sources and expertise required to provide an accurate background report on the Chandlers, so he set out to prepare a fictitious report about them,” Chandler’s legal complaint states. “Berlin intentionally invented salacious accusations about the Chandler brothers in an attempt to entice his marks to pay tens of thousands of dollars for additional fake reports about them.”
The suit claims Berlin “simply copied large portions” of a report he’d written for a previous client, relating to an alleged scam involving Gazprom, and changed the details to make it appear that the Chandlers had participated.
Other allegations were lifted from old news articles. One such claim was that the Chandlers hid money “in the name of Panamanian registered companies such as Dramal, Camparal, and Tutoral at the International Bank of Luxembourg (BIL)”. According to the lawsuit, this was taken from a 2002 article in Le Monde about a totally unrelated case, with the details changed to implicate the Chandlers.
The allegations about espionage are baseless, the suit says. Richard Chandler had allegedly been awarded a “third class” medal for service to the Russian fatherland, but there was no such award, it contends. Christopher Chandler had allegedly organised dead drops of shortwave radios for secret agents to use, but by 2002 such technology was outdated and Russian spies used mobile phones.
Chandler claims the false allegations have done enormous damage to his business and reputation. But in their Sept. 11 letter, Chandler’s lawyers offered Berlin a compromise. He could avoid litigation if he signed a statement renouncing his report on the Chandlers and blaming his sources for providing false information. “As the person who bears ultimate responsibility for that, I want to be clear that I consider the dossier a work of fiction,” said the draft statement that Chandler’s lawyers asked Berlin to sign.
Berlin would have to agree to be interviewed and to provide an affidavit. “We intend to use the above to rebut the false allegations contained in your prior writings about our client,” Chandler’s lawyers said. If Berlin didn’t comply with this, Chandler would sue him in a federal court, subpoena his emails, texts, drafts, and financial records, and seek discovery that would expose his sources.
Chandler’s lawyers would also, they added, “leverage our contacts in the media to mitigate the harm you have unfairly caused to our client’s reputation with your false accusations, to put your prior clients on notice regarding [Investigative Consultants, Inc.]’s fraudulent business model, and to prevent you from defrauding others with fake reports in future”.
Berlin refused, and three days later Chandler’s lawyers filed suit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia seeking $10 million in compensation, $5 million in punitive damages, and legal costs.
In responses submitted to the court, Berlin has denied fabricating information and argued that Chandler’s lawsuit is meritless.
According to Berlin’s legal filings, he was hired by Eringer to do a background search on Richard Chandler 16 years ago. He prepared a confidential report for Eringer and gave it to him in February 2003. The information was drawn from “various databases and other sources”. Berlin says he “simply gathered information available to him and passed it along to Mr Eringer with the understanding that the information needed to be evaluated and verified before it could be relied upon as accurate”.
“Some time after receiving Mr Berlin’s limited report, Mr Eringer produced a dossier about [Chandler] and his brother,” Berlin’s lawyers argued. “Mr Eringer’s dossier accused them of acting as Russian agents and laundering money for Russian criminal groups … Mr Berlin had no role in the preparation of Mr Eringer’s dossier and the complaint contains no allegation that he did.”
Berlin’s lawyers contend that “there is neither a factual nor a legal basis” for the libel claims against their client. “This case is about Plaintiff Christopher Chandler, a foreign billionaire, attempting to intimidate a small businessman by threatening him, his livelihood, and his wife into providing a false retraction for Mr Chandler to use in the United Kingdom,” one of the filings asserts.
“The intimidation began on September 11, 2018, when an unidentified individual abruptly shoved the Blackmail Letter and attachments … into Mrs Berlin’s hands at her place of business,” it continues. “He directed her to ‘give this to your husband and have him call us.’”
Berlin refused to sign a statement retracting his background research and to provide an affidavit because it would’ve been false, his lawyers contend. They have accused Chandler of trying to blackmail Berlin by threatening to expose him in the media and by including in the original complaint details and allegations about Berlin’s past that were irrelevant to the case and were included only to damage him.
In a ruling on Oct. 16, the judge agreed that Chandler’s original complaint had gone too far and ordered that material to be struck out. Chandler’s complaint, the judge said, was “nasty and snide”, needlessly demeaning, plainly designed to “embarrass and humiliate” Berlin, and included material that was “beneath the dignity of this court”. The judge ordered that and other documents to be redacted and filed again.
Berlin’s lawyers intend to ask the court to throw out the entire libel claim. Steven Oster, one of Berlin’s representatives, told BuzzFeed News in an email that he is “confident the case will be dismissed shortly”.
Megan Meier, a lawyer at Clare Locke who acts for Chandler, told BuzzFeed News that “Chandler and his partners at Legatum run the organisation in accordance with the highest ethical standards. And as a longstanding philanthropic organisation, Legatum has positively impacted the lives of people all around the world. My client intends to defend his good name and, where necessary, to hold accountable those who have spread false information about him; both for the sake of justice and to permit Legatum to move forward with its business and charitable activities.”