COVID-19 Fears Cut Trump Dossier Author Off Stand Mid-Trial

Law360, London (March 18, 2020, 7:04 PM GMT) -- After learning his wife was being tested for coronavirus, ex-British spy Christopher Steele was released in the middle of his testimony Wednesday from a trial brought by three Russian bankers claiming he breached the U.K.’s data protection law by disseminating allegedly false information in his infamous Trump dossier.

Steele had spent the morning testifying in the High Court case, but after lunch his counsel informed Judge Mark Warby that Steele had learned his wife had been taken to the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms and was being tested for the virus. Although there were no results yet, she was being held in isolation, the barrister said.

After noting that the most recent government guidance recommends individuals stay at home for 14 days if someone in their household exhibits symptoms, the judge released Steele from remaining on the witness stand.

The High Court suit brought by the three Russian bankers against Steele’s firm, Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd., alleges that the former MI6 agent released inaccurate information — in violation of the U.K.’s data protection law — linking them to Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election.

The businessmen, Petr Aven, Mikhail Fridman and German Khan, who are all tied to Russian bank Alfa Group's businesses, point to a memo in Steele’s dossier entitled “U.S. Presidential Election, Kremlin-Alpha Group Cooperation” that identifies them but contains no content relating to the 2016 election.

The allegedly inaccurate disclosures within the memo include a claim that Aven and Fridman arranged for the delivery of "large amounts of illicit cash" to Putin when he was the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, and that the Russian president has done them favors in the years since.

The bankers’ suit also claims Steele provided false information that made its way into Mother Jones and BuzzFeed articles about the dossier and that he’s behind a 2016 Slate article about alleged server activity linking Alfa Bank and Trump Tower.

In his witness statement, Steele states that in June 2016, Orbis was retained by Washington, D.C.-based consultancy Fusion GPS to investigate Trump and the then-presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s alleged links to Putin and other Russian officials. He later learned that Fusion’s client was Perkins Coie LLP in Washington.

“I understood that while the research we were instructed to undertake had initially been commissioned by a Republican-leaning client, the research was by that time being funded by supporters or associates of the Democratic Party,” Steele states.

The dossier of reports was securely provided to Fusion by enciphered or encrypted email with documents hand delivered by a FedEx courier, according to Steele, who also said he provided copies of his dossier to the FBI out of a sense of "duty."

And while Steele says in his witness statement that he spoke "on background" to some media organizations at Fusion’s direction, about the “wholesale Russian U.S. election interference project,” he “did not disclose or discuss the content of the dossier” to the media, including the memo at issue about the claimants.

The document referencing the three bankers does not touch on the other explosive claims in the dossier, Steele notes, including the alleged Russian exploitation of Trump’s sexual activities in Russia, conspiracy between the Kremlin and the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian state-sponsored cyber crime in the U.S.

The three Russian businessmen, who first sued Orbis in May 2018, have told the court at trial that the claims in the dossier linking them to Putin, corruption and alleged Russian interference with America’s elections have damaged their reputations.

Steele, they say, claims that he obtained the information from reputable third-party sources, but has not produced any evidence to back up that assertion or to show that he took reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of the information.

During Steele’s cross-examination on Wednesday, a lawyer for the three bankers, Hugh Tomlinson QC of Matrix Chambers, asked about the source — and that person’s “subsource” — behind the information about his clients.

Steele said he couldn't disclose the subsource’s line of work out of fear the person would be identified, but had known them for years and was confident they were in a position to report accurately.

“But that doesn’t mean they’re going to tell you accurately, does it?” Tomlinson countered. “They might give you an accurate account but they might not.”

Steele said that was true but when he assesses information, he considers whether the person providing it has access to that information by way of his or her job or connections.

The trial wraps with closing statements on Thursday.

Aven and the other claimants are represented by Hugh Tomlinson QC and Kirsten Sjøvoll of Matrix Chambers, instructed by CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP.

Orbis is represented by Gavin Millar QC of Matrix Chambers and Robin Hopkins of 11KBW, instructed by Reynolds Porter Chamberlain LLP.

The case is Aven and another v. Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd Pt Hd., case number QB-2018-0006349, in the High Court of Justice of England and Wales.

--Editing by Tom Mudd.

Update: This story has been updated to include solicitor information for Aven and the other claimants.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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