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Boris Johnson broke rules over hedge fund behind Venezuela trip, says watchdog

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Boris Johnson breached UK government rules by failing to disclose his relationship with a hedge fund that organised his visit to meet Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, according to the Whitehall appointments watchdog.

Lord Eric Pickles, chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, reported the breach in a letter to deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden on Friday.

Pickles said the former UK prime minister had been “evasive” in his dealings with Acoba, avoided answering specific questions and “refused to be open about his relationship to Merlyn Advisors”.

People familiar with the matter told the Financial Times last month that the London-based hedge fund had arranged Johnson’s controversial visit to Venezuela.

Former JPMorgan banker Maarten Petermann, co-founder of Merlyn Advisors, organised Johnson’s below-the-radar trip by private jet in February, the people said.

Petermann is interested in normalising diplomatic relations between London and Caracas, they added.

Government rules state former ministers must not announce or take up new appointments before Acoba has provided advice within a defined timeframe after they have left office.

Pickles said Johnson “clearly feels strongly that there has been no reason to seek advice” about his links to the hedge fund, but hit back, writing: “It is not his decision to make; it is Acoba’s.”

The peer also disclosed that Johnson had previously submitted an application about plans to work as an “independent contractor” for Merlyn Advisors, a role that would have involved providing “perspectives and insights to a range of the company’s domestic and international stakeholders”.

However, Johnson withdrew that application, first submitted in September 2023, saying he would not be taking up the work.

The withdrawn submission “further complicated” the matter and increased “the need for Mr Johnson to be candid with the committee”, Pickles said.

In a separate letter to Johnson, Pickles said it was “a matter of some regret” that the former prime minister had failed to be candid about the “exact nature” of his relationship with the hedge fund.

“Consequently, there remains a reasonable concern that you were acting for Merlyn Advisors in a capacity that would be considered advisory work — which Acoba would expect an application for,” the watchdog chair said.

Pickles has long called for an overhaul of the business appointments vetting rules, and on Friday urged Dowden to expedite government proposals to introduce a new system.

He warned the current rules “no longer have relevance in the modern world and are unenforceable to applicants determined to ignore them”, pointing out that Dowden was not able to issue sanctions for breaches.

While ministers announced plans to introduce tougher rules last summer, Pickles said he was “disappointed” by the lack of progress since then.

A spokesperson for Johnson declined to comment. The Cabinet Office was contacted for comment.

At present, the UK does not accept the legitimacy of the Maduro government after it won elections in 2018 that were boycotted by the opposition and considered a sham by western countries.

In March Johnson’s team said of his visit to Venezuela that he was acting as a diplomatic back channel for the UK with the “active support” of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. But a senior FCDO insider said Johnson was “doing his own thing”.

Johnson’s spokesperson said at the time: “Nothing commercial was raised in the meeting. The only matters of discussion were democracy, human rights and Ukraine.”

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