Dark Money Investigations: Investigation

Oil firm linked to DUP dark money man collapses owing investors £4.5m

Richard Cook signed an oil deal with a Texan company run by a convicted fraudster. The Scottish company involved has gone bust, owing creditors more than £4.5 million

Peter Geoghegan
Andrew Learmonth Peter Geoghegan
29 October 2020, 1.32pm
David Cameron and Richard Cook

A Scottish oil and gas company linked to the man behind the Democratic Unionist Party’s mysterious £435,000 Brexit donation owes at least £4.5 million to more than fifty investors, openDemocracy has learned.

Glasgow-based businessman Richard Cook signed a deed of trust between the Scottish company, HGEC Capital Ltd, and a Texas oil firm run by a man described by a judge almost a decade earlier as “a repeat offender with criminal convictions for securities fraud”.

HGEC Capital Ltd went into administration earlier this year. Documents produced by the administrators now reveal that the company owes at least £4.5 million.

Known investors include elderly couples, small business owners, and one z-list Scottish celebrity.

Get dark money out of UK politics!

Sign our petition to put pressure on the government to tighten electoral laws and shine more light on political donations. We need to know who is giving what to our political parties.

The firm’s director, Kenneth Campbell, could now be summoned to court for a ‘private examination’.

Earlier this year openDemocracy and the Sunday National revealed Cook’s involvement in the HGEC Capital Ltd scandal. He made a number of visits to the US on the company’s instruction and also registered the firm’s website.

Cook’s greatest claim to fame is his role as the chairman of the Constitutional Research Council, which made the record-breaking £435,000 gift to the DUP just weeks before the 2016 Brexit vote.

Under the deed of trust signed by Cook, HGEC Capital Ltd – formed in Glasgow in 2018 – agreed to lend $14.3 million to Texas Gulf Coast Secured Lenders Joint Venture LLC in return for oil and land rights.

In a brochure allegedly circulated to potential Scottish investors, HGEC Capital Ltd said the current downturn in oil prices presented an opportunity. It listed a number of oil and gas sites in Texas which, it said, were worth $89,360,000 at the time, but which it claimed would could be sold for $666,000,000 in twelve months’ time.

It seems at least 56 investors handed over cash in the hope that they would see similar returns.

Despite the millions invested, administrators say they have, so far, been able to find only one bank account, containing just £7700.88.

Ayr Sheriff Court appointed Begbies Traynor as administrators in February this year following a petition submitted on behalf of an offshore fund registered in the Cayman Islands.

In the administrators’ latest progress report, lodged with Companies House, Begbies Traynor says that around £1 million was transferred “to and from” a bank account in the US between April and June 2018. However, it has been unable to find “trace of any further transfers” to the States after this time.

According to HGEC Capital Ltd's bank statements, all sums invested after June 2018 “were distributed shortly after receipt to various parties, including Mr Campbell”.

The administrators have now written to the recipients of larger sums “seeking a clear explanation and entitlement to such monies”.

Lawyers acting for Cook say he is not one of these recipients.

The administrators have criticised Campbell, accusing him of ignoring requests for details of the company’s finances, and all books and records.

They say Campbell's "failure to provide satisfactory cooperation” has made their work “significantly more difficult than would normally be expected".

Begbies Traynor say it will ask Campbell to pay back more than £1 million in HGEC’s funds paid to him or “personal payments made on his behalf”.

The real owner of the Texan properties, according to the deed signed by Cook, was a company called Houston Gulf Energy Corporation. This firm was run by John Ehrman, who at the time was being indicted by a grand jury over a $2.3 million lease fraud involving a series of oil wells in Texas.

He was sentenced to 42 months in prison for fraud in August 2018.

Cook made the news back in 2017 when he was named as the chair of the Constitutional Research Council, the mysterious organisation behind a record-breaking £435,000 donation to the DUP during the Brexit referendum.

Most of the money was spent outside Northern Ireland, including a prominent wraparound advert in the Metro newspaper – which is not available in Northern Ireland.

The identity of the CRC’s donors have never been made public due to donor secrecy laws.

Campbell, meanwhile, has been involved with football clubs in the past, and is reasonably well known in the game. He sponsored shirts for Clyde FC in 2015.

It is understood HGEC approached a number of high-profile footballers, including players for Rangers and Celtic, though none appears on a list of unsecured creditors that Begbies Traynor, lodged with Companies House earlier this year.

Asked about HGEC Capital, lawyers acting for Cook said he was “retained to report to HGEC on certain investments he was instructed HGEC wished to make”.

They added: ”He visited the US on a number of occasions on HGEC’s instruction in relation to that.

“Mr Cook had no involvement with any investor in, or in securing any investment in, HGEC.

“At no time did Mr Cook ever have a mandate on or access to any bank accounts operated by HGEC, whether used for investor monies or otherwise.

“Mr Cook has worked with Begbies Traynor and the Administrators of HGEC since their appointment and has cooperated fully with them.

“He has been retained by creditors of HGEC to advise them with a view to securing recovery of funds. In the circumstances, where investigations and potential recovery are ongoing, any further comment would be inappropriate at this time.

“Any inference or allegation that Mr Cook took decisions for or acted in any way as a principal of HGEC is entirely denied.”

Campbell did not respond to requests for a comment.

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData