Dark Money Investigations: News

UK law firm that represented Russian warlord linked to ‘golden visas’

London law firm that worked for Wagner Group founder faces call to be ‘struck off’ as regulator launches probes

Jim Fitzpatrick square
Jim Fitzpatrick
14 February 2023, 8.57pm

In Monaco, the visas are made of gold


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A British law firm under investigation for representing a Russian warlord is linked to an offshore company promoting “golden visas” to Russian elites, openDemocracy can reveal.

Last month, our investigation detailed how the UK government gave special permission for Yevgeny Prigozhin to pay Discreet Law. Prigozhin is the founder of Wagner Group, whose mercenaries are responsible for thousands of deaths in Ukraine.

Headed by Roger Gherson, the London law firm was even allowed to send its solicitors to Russia to meet the plutocrat to prepare a legal attack on a British journalist, Eliot Higgins.

Now, the lawyer acting for Higgins has told openDemocracy the firm should be “struck off” due to its conduct in the case.

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openDemocracy has also learnt that in 2016 Gherson co-founded a separate offshore firm called Discreet Advisory Services, which has sought business from wealthy foreign elites.

Based in the tax haven of Monaco, the company offers services including “protecting family wealth” and “world-wide secondary citizenship”.

Its website has also promoted so-called ‘golden visas’ in the EU – which enable wealthy foreign individuals to gain residence, and ultimately citizenship, in their chosen country by investing large amounts of money there.

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One article is headlined “Travel In Schengen Area With A Portuguese Golden Visa”. It was published separately in both Russian and English, and posted on the Discreet Advisory Services website in March 2018,.

Such schemes, offered by the UK as well as by EU countries, have earned billions for governments who have effectively sold residency rights, and ultimately citizenship, to those with the money to pay for it.

Discreet Advisory Services says it is not offering legal advice but partners with “specialists across the globe”.

Its website is not shy about what the Portuguese golden visa scheme can deliver, stating:

One of the main benefits of the program is the possibility of applying for permanent residence after 5 years and for Portuguese nationality after 6 years. Although the applicant is not required to reside in Portugal, they must demonstrate links to the country. Obtaining Portuguese nationality entitles the holder to live, travel, work and study anywhere in the EU.

The official UK Sanctions List identifies two Russian oligarchs, Roman Abramovich and Oleg Deripaska, as holders of Portuguese passports.

Gherson had another London law firm, a partnership called Gherson Solicitors, which also made a selling point of its expertise in the UK’s golden visa scheme, known as Tier 1 visas.

Under that scheme, a £2m investment could help secure someone the right to residency in the UK, with citizenship potentially available five years later.

The government ended the programme in February last year due to security concerns, but as late as December 2021 the firm’s website still devoted a section to the benefits of the scheme, describing it as “a route available for individuals of substantial financial means making an investment in the UK”.

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Noting changes to immigration rules, Gherson Solicitors – now re-registered as an LLP – posted an article this month offering the latest advice on what investments now qualify. “We are often instructed by our Tier 1 (Investor) clients to review their portfolios in line with the UK Immigration Rules,” it says.

The Tier 1 scheme, introduced in 2008, had long been a matter of controversy. A report by Transparency International in 2015 found that it was “highly likely that substantial amounts of corrupt wealth stolen from China and Russia” had been channelled into the UK through the programme since it launched in 2008.

The government abruptly brought it to a close in the week before the invasion of Ukraine. Making the announcement, the Home Secretary at the time, Priti Patel, cited a need to stop “corrupt elites who threaten our national security and push dirty money around our cities”.

There is no suggestion that Gherson Solicitors, Discreet Law or Discreet Advisory Services have ever sought to channel corrupt money through the scheme.

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The war in Ukraine has also prompted an EU crackdown, but Portugal is among several European countries to still offer investment programmes that promise residency and eventual citizenship for wealthy non-Europeans.

Although Discreet Advisory Services in Monaco and Discreet Law are separate companies in different jurisdictions, they share more than a common founder in Roger Gherson, using identical written passages in parts of their websites.

Gherson’s two London firms are also connected by common staff. Four of the six solicitors registered with Discreet Law, including Gherson himself, also work for Gherson Solicitors.

‘Designed to silence critics’

openDemocracy’s revelations about the case Discreet Law took on behalf of Prigozhin prompted an urgent question in Parliament by shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, who described it as “a perfect example of a SLAPP – a strategic lawsuit against public participation, designed to silence critics through financial intimidation”.

Discreet Law withdrew its services for Prigozhin in March 2022, a week after a meeting his Russian lawyer counterpart in London, at a closed hearing from which Higgins’ legal team were excluded. As a result, Higgins was left with £100,000 in legal costs and no means of recovering the money from the sanctioned plutocrat.

I don't think anything less than a striking-off would be appropriate in this instance, quite frankly

Matthew Jury, solicitor

Emails between Discreet Law and Prigozhin’s Russian lawyers, seen by openDemocracy, revealed that, even before the case was filed, the Russian side speculated about the difficulty Higgins would face recovering costs from a sanctioned individual should they lose.

Higgins’ solicitors made a formal complaint to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) about Discreet Law’s role in the case. An investigation by the professional watchdog is ongoing.

The SRA can impose fines and restrictions on the firm if it finds fault. But the solicitor who acted for Higgins has called for Discreet Law to be struck off, essentially having its licence to practise removed.

“I don't think anything less than a striking-off would be appropriate in this instance, quite frankly,” Matthew Jury told openDemocracy.

openDemocracy asked Roger Gherson to explain the structure and connections between his various firms, but he did not respond personally. However, openDemocracy received two individual replies from his London firms.

A spokesperson for Gherson Solicitors LLP said: “As lawyers, we are unable to disclose confidential information about the legal services that we have provided to our clients. As you have seen, information about the firm is publicly available on the firm’s website as well as on the websites of the SRA and Companies House. As required, any changes to the firm’s legal form have been notified to and approved by the SRA.”

And a spokesperson for Discreet Law said: “As you will appreciate, as lawyers we are unable to disclose confidential information relating to our former clients. It is public knowledge that Discreet Law LLP acted for Mr Prigozhin and our position is that at all times we complied fully with our legal and professional obligations.”

London has been identified in research by the Foreign Policy Centre as the SLAPPs capital of the world. It found wealthy individuals, including members of corrupt ruling elites, exploited the UK legal system to shut down scrutiny of their financial affairs and actions with the assistance of a handful of specialist firms. Concerns about such cases and their impact on democracy have prompted the government to promise new legislation, but none has yet been timetabled in Parliament.

Susan Coughtrie, director of the Foreign Policy Centre and co-chair of the UK anti-SLAPP coalition, said: “The role of lawyers clearly needs much greater scrutiny and regulation, both in terms of the potential role they play – wittingly or unwittingly – in enabling corrupt figures to whitewash their money and reputations, as well as assist in shutting down public scrutiny of alleged wrongdoing through the use of SLAPPs.”

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