UK investigates alleged Russian links to Brexit campaign

Arron Banks, right, pictured with leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage in 2015.

(CNN)As the largest backer of the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union, Arron Banks rejoiced in being called one of the "Bad Boys of Brexit." Now the UK's National Crime Agency is investigating his financial support for the campaign and his contacts with Russian officials, according to three sources familiar with the probe.

The agency recently received an extensive archive of Banks' emails and other documents, the sources say, which include descriptions of meetings with Russian diplomats and possible business opportunities in Russia.
At least some of those emails have already been leaked to media organizations in the UK and the US. Banks, who provided loans and donations totalling about $12 million to Leave.EU, the Brexit campaign group he co-founded, has complained to the police that they were stolen.
    A spokesperson for the National Crime Agency told CNN it never confirms or denies the existence of investigations. The UK's Serious Fraud Office also declined to comment on whether it had opened an investigation. The Sunday Times of London first revealed the National Crime Agency's involvement last weekend.
      In a text to CNN on Monday, Banks's spokesman Andy Wigmore said the NCA had not contacted either of them. "And they are unlikely to, firstly because both UK and US authorities were fully briefed and know the truth -- there is no evidence of any wrongdoing or collusion because it didn't happen so even they know there is nothing to investigate," Wigmore said.
      Arron Banks, co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign, pictured in June 2018 in Bristol, England.
      Banks' financial support for Leave.EU in the runup to the 2016 vote made him the biggest individual donor in British political history. The group won the endorsement of the leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, one of the leading pro-Brexit campaigners. According to the latest accounts of Leave.EU, Banks' loan has not been paid back.
      His emails were passed to the National Crime Agency by a third party. Sources have told CNN the documents have also been shared with the UK's domestic intelligence service MI5 and, in the US, with Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee. The committee has been investigating allegations of collusion between people associated with the Trump campaign and Russia, as well as Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election campaign.
        Some of the emails, which CNN obtained, discuss meetings between Banks, Wigmore and diplomats at the Russian embassy in London, including with the ambassador Alexander Yakovenko in 2015 and 2016.
        The cache of emails reveal that, before the EU referendum in June 2016, Banks was offered the chance to invest in several Russian businesses, including the consolidation of Russian gold mines and a sale of shares in the country's largest diamond mine company, Alrosa.
        In one email sent to the Russian mining magnate Siman Povarenkin in November 2015, Banks said he was "very bullish on gold so keen to have a look." He copied a wealthy business partner and fellow Brexit supporter, Jim Mellon, on the correspondence.

        Russian 'Gold Play'

        Two months later, Banks wrote to an adviser with experience of Russian business deals, Nick van den Brul. Banks asked whether there was "any chance Andrew Umbers [another adviser] and myself can see you about the Russian Gold Play. I intend to pop in and see the [Russian] ambassador as well."
        The following month Van den Brul wrote to Wigmore, saying: "You may have seen that Alrosa, the Russian diamond monopoly, may have been touted as one of the companies which could be privatised. In my view there won't be full privatisation but it could open up some opportunities for Arron through 'partial' privatisation."
        Efforts by CNN to reach Van den Brul were unsuccessful.
        In April 2016, the correspondence shows Banks was offered an introduction by a business acquaintance to an "adventurous" Russian gold miner seeking capital for a prospecting business in the west African state of Guinea.
        Banks has said repeatedly that he never invested in any of the schemes on offer. Wigmore told CNN they had received advice not to invest in any of the proposals. "No deal and no business with any Russian," he told CNN.
        But a fund linked to Jim Mellon did buy into the Alrosa offering. Based in the Isle of Man, a tax haven in the Irish Sea between the UK and Ireland, Mellon has long experience of investing in Russia. He held a minority stake in Charlemagne Capital, which successfully bid for shares in Alrosa when the Russian government sold part of the company in July 2016 for some $800 million.
        A report in September 2016 by a fund run by Charlemagne noted that "placements of this type often provide a profitable entry point, and diamond producer Alrosa has performed well."
        Alrosa's stock price rose sharply in the three months after Charlemagne had purchased millions of shares in the company. Other investment banks and hedge funds had also bought into Alrosa.
        A representative for Mellon refused to comment on the record, but CNN has been told that at the time Mellon was not involved with Charlemagne's investment committee and had no knowledge of the acquisition.

        Meetings with US officials