A sanctions-hit Russian warlord who has been accused of human rights abuses around the world was able to pass UK anti-money laundering checks by submitting a utility bill in the name of his 81-year-old mother.
Leaked emails seen by the Financial Times show that London-based law firm Discreet Law in 2021 requested identification documents from Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group, as part of anti-money laundering checks, before taking him on as a client.
At the time the Wagner boss, whose fighters have been accused of crimes including mass executions and rape, was under sanctions by the US, EU and UK and had been placed on the FBI’s most wanted list of international fugitives.
In response to Discreet’s request for documents from Prigozhin, his Russian lawyers forwarded the law firm a copy of his passport and a gas bill in the name of the Wagner boss’s then 81-year-old mother, Violetta, for an address in St Petersburg.
They wrote: “The bill is issued in the name of the claimant’s mother (Violetta Prigozhina) who actually lives at the client’s residential address and pays the bills.” In response, a solicitor at Discreet Law replied: “We are satisfied with the [anti-money laundering] documents.”
Violetta Prigozhina, now 83, was placed under sanctions by the EU last year for her support of her son’s mercenary activities.
The FT has shown that mercenary-backed companies controlled by Prigozhin have continued to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues despite being under western sanctions since 2018.
Prigozhin hired Discreet Law in 2021 to sue the UK journalist Eliot Higgins for libel for suggesting the Russian was connected to Wagner.
Discreet Law, which submitted a High Court claim on Prigozhin’s behalf stating he had suffered emotional distress, applied to stop representing him in March 2022, about one month after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Revelations about the ease with which Prigozhin hired UK lawyers come at a time when the role of London as a hub for money laundering and economic crime has come under mounting scrutiny.
British law firms, according to their regulator, the Solicitors Regulation Authority, are granted some discretion under current rules to assess the level of vetting they must do on individual clients based on the risks they pose.
Discreet Law had also successfully applied for permission to act for Prigozhin from the UK Treasury in 2021 because he was under sanctions.
Margaret Hodge, a Labour MP who has helped lead a cross-party initiative to combat economic crime, said the acceptance of a gas bill in the name of a relative of a high-risk client demonstrated the need for urgent UK reform.
“It is ridiculous that a Russian warlord avoided all suspicion of money laundering by simply using his elderly mother’s gas bills,” she added, saying it was “outrageous” that a law firm took on such a risky client.
“Our bankers, accountants and lawyers all have a duty to perform robust checks on their customers,” said Hodge, adding such scrutiny was critical in preventing dirty money reaching the UK.
Discreet Law founder Roger Gherson declined to respond to questions about whether other steps were taken by the firm to vet Prigozhin before taking him on as a client, or why it accepted his mother’s gas bill in its anti-money laundering checks.
He said Discreet Law “cannot comment on confidential communications with their former clients”.
“Discreet Law’s position is that in taking instructions and undertaking due diligence they have at all times complied fully with their legal and professional obligations,” said Gherson.