‘Pri­son life was fas­ci­nat­ing – had I not been to board­ing school, it would have been in­fin­itely harder’

Ge­orge Cot­trell was a mi­nor aris­to­crat, a mem­ber of Nigel Farage’s in­ner cir­cle, a UKIP fundraiser, a self-made mil­lion­aire and a com­pul­sive gambler, all by the age of 23. And then US fed­eral agents caught up with him. He tells Wil­liam Cash about his spec

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - CONTENTS -

How did UKIP’S 23-year-old hot­shot fundraiser end up in a Chicago pri­son fac­ing 21 counts of fi­nan­cial mis­con­duct? Ge­orge Cot­trell talks to Wil­liam Cash about his down­fall

Seated in a dark suit with a glass of claret in front of him at lunch re­cently in the Syd­ney Arms in Chelsea, Ge­orge Cot­trell de­scribes the evening of 23 June 2016 as ‘the best night of my life – some­thing I’ll never for­get’.

On that day of the EU ref­er­en­dum poll, in­deed through­out that over­heated po­lit­i­cal sum­mer, Cot­trell had been in the ‘jump seat’ at Nigel Farage’s side, work­ing as his aide-de-camp, gate­keeper and cam­paign fixer – from book­ing his he­li­copters to let­ting Simpson’s Tavern in the City know that Nigel was on the way for what he likes to call a ‘PFL’ (Proper F—ing Lunch). At the age of just 23, Cot­trell is ac­cus­tomed to the high life: he’s the nephew of Lord Hes­keth, the aris­to­cratic for­mer Tory min­is­ter and F1 rac­ing-team owner, and his mother Fiona – once a Penthouse Pet of the Month – was ro­man­ti­cally linked to Prince Charles in the late 1970s.

On ref­er­en­dum day, Cot­trell de­cided that the best way for Farage’s in­ner en­tourage – in­clud­ing donor Ar­ron Banks – to calm their nerves was a PFL at Zaf­fer­ano, an Ital­ian res­tau­rant in Bel­gravia. Once the third bot­tle of chi­anti was opened, the mood im­proved. ‘We spent most of the time talk­ing about what would hap­pen if we lost, and Ar­ron told me I was a pes­simist and that we would win. But Nigel was pretty brood­ing through­out.’

How­ever, when Sun­der­land voted for leave by a big­ger than ex­pected mar­gin, Cot­trell sensed a bet­ting op­por­tu­nity. ‘At 10pm, I couldn’t be­lieve I was still get­ting 9/1 [for a ma­jor­ity leave vote],’ he says. ‘We were in our cam­paign of­fice and I was track­ing all the ma­jor stock in­dices, the dol­lar and pound cur­rency mar­kets. When it got to 3am, I was get­ting my man­agers out of bed to get me an­other 50 grand on here, an­other 50 grand there, to short ster­ling. I just couldn’t help my­self.’

Cot­trell won a six-fig­ure sum that night but promptly ‘lost most of it the next day, on some horse run­ning called Exit Europe or some­thing like that. I was a com­pul­sive, ha­bit­ual, ad­dicted gambler.’ Gen­er­ous but self-ef­fac­ing, with a sharp mem­ory, Cot­trell re­lates the events of that day and night with the self-as­sur­ance that the English pub­lic-school sys­tem pro­duces – a chauf­feur brought him to lunch, and only later did I re­alise he had body­guards in at­ten­dance.

Just three weeks af­ter the ref­er­en­dum vote, this ap­petite for high stakes nearly ended up with Cot­trell gam­bling away two decades of his life to a max­i­mum se­cu­rity US jail. Hav­ing at­tended the Repub­li­can con­ven­tion in Cleve­land in July, he was con­fronted by eight armed fed­eral In­land Rev­enue Ser­vice (IRS) agents as he got off a plane in Chicago, with Nigel Farage just be­hind him. He was hand­cuffed and de­tained in a lo­cal fed­eral jail. Back in Bri­tain, ‘Posh Ge­orge’ – as he is known within Farage’s in­ner cir­cle – be­came big news: the Daily Mir­ror head­line was ‘Farage aide faces 20 years for black­mail drug plot’.

Un­til now, Cot­trell has given no in­ter­views about what hap­pened when he stepped off that plane in Chicago and dis­ap­peared for eight months into the bow­els of the US jus­tice sys­tem, holed up with gang lead­ers and mur­der­ers.

‘Pri­son life was fas­ci­nat­ing and had I not been to board­ing school it would have been in­fin­itely harder,’ says Cot­trell. ‘I was housed in max­i­mum-se­cu­rity fa­cil­i­ties in Chicago and Ari­zona. I was placed with mur­der­ers, rapists, pae­dophiles, as­sas­sins, Isil ter­ror­ists, car­tel king­pins and even a Mafia boss. I had to fight for my life on an al­most daily ba­sis. I still have frac­tured ribs to­day.’ Due to his case’s me­dia pro­file, for the ma­jor­ity of his nine-month in­car­cer­a­tion he was pro­vided with his own cell.

It was a be­wil­der­ing fall for a the scion of a landed York­shire fam­ily. He was ed­u­cated in Mus­tique fol­lowed by Malvern Col­lege, which he left aged 16 af­ter be­ing rep­ri­manded for a gam­bling habit so bad that he was read­ing the Rac­ing Post at 12 and bet­ting il­le­gally in book­ies. Un­sur­pris­ingly, Cot­trell says, he fell out with his fam­ily over the episode.

The habit at least gave him a head for num­bers and com­pli­cated fi­nan­cial trades, and he was of­fered a job rais­ing cap­i­tal for a cor­po­rate fi­nance house. This led to him, aged just 19, help­ing to set up a multi­bil­lion-pound pri­vate of­fice in May­fair for a well-known ‘in­ter­na­tional’ fam­ily. ‘I was the youngest per­son there by a long way,’ he says. ‘They took me un­der their wing, and I was taught the ropes, so to speak.’

He learned about the murky and com­pli­cated world of ‘shadow bank­ing’, se­cret off­shore ac­counts and so­phis­ti­cated fi­nan­cial struc­tures in such ju­ris­dic­tions as Panama, An­dorra and Switzer­land. He did well, and was soon work­ing as a Lon­don-based banker for an off­shore pri­vate bank (which was un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the US au­thor­i­ties as a ‘for­eign fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tion of pri­mary money-laun­der­ing con­cern’). It was these skills that landed Cot­trell an un­paid role in 2016, run­ning Nigel Farage’s pri­vate of­fice at UKIP’S May­fair head­quar­ters and, in the run-up to the EU ref­er­en­dum, as a chief fundraiser for the party. The young Cot­trell moved into Farage’s glass of­fice and had ‘my Berry Bros wine col­lec­tion stashed in the cab­i­net’.

When pud­ding ar­rived, one of the busi­ness­men said, ‘We make two and a half mil­lion a year traf­fick­ing co­caine’

His con­tri­bu­tion? To ‘suc­cess­fully raise mil­lions’ dur­ing cam­paign­ing, and he says, ‘It was very im­por­tant for [donors] to have face time with Nigel, and that’s where I came in. My role with fundrais­ing meant that I was also look­ing af­ter Nigel.’

Cot­trell’s of­ten reck­less tem­per­a­ment may help to ex­plain the un­usu­ally close bond be­tween him and Farage. Did he view Nigel as a fa­ther fig­ure? ‘Yes,’ replied Cot­trell. ‘In many things. I mean, I still do.’ Did Farage know how bad his gam­bling prob­lem had be­come? ‘Yes. It was out of con­trol. I’d saunter to the Wil­liam Hill round the corner with a Har­vey Ni­chols bag with 50 grand in it, to have a bet on the 2.05 at Ling­field on a horse I knew noth­ing about. I was ne­glect­ing work, friends, fam­ily, girl­friends. It was all-con­sum­ing.’ How did it af­fect him when he lost? ‘It didn’t re­ally. It hap­pened so reg­u­larly’. De­spite the losses, Cot­trell man­aged to main­tain a mil­lion­aire life­style from the age of 18 to 21, with a concierge look­ing af­ter him 24 hours a day. ‘I al­ways man­aged to fund my gam­bling,’ he says. ‘Later on, I was earn­ing mil­lions and los­ing mil­lions.’

His role at the off­shore bank was to bring in new cus­tom and he quickly learnt how pri­vate bankers did busi­ness with clients. ‘No busi­ness cards. No emails. Meet­ings in per­son. Lots of travel. Most of our cor­re­spon­dence was done by mail.’ And rule num­ber one: never meet clients in the con­ti­nen­tal United States. ‘We were not li­censed to op­er­ate there and we were un­der scru­tiny,’ adds Cot­trell.

The off­shore ‘lead­ing-edge tax so­lu­tions’ that Cot­trell was putting in place were to max­imise tax ef­fi­ciency. They were not il­le­gal, he claims. ‘ We’re talk­ing about peo­ple who have just com­pleted an IPO [ini­tial pub­lic of­fer­ing], they ’re about to re­ceive hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars, and they needed the tax struc­tures put in place and the off­shore bank­ing mech­a­nisms to pro­vide pen­sion pro­vi­sion and the like.’

While work­ing for the bank, Cot­trell was con­tacted by two Ari­zona busi­ness­men who wanted to sell their mul­ti­mil­lion- dol­lar prop­erty port­fo­lio and were in­ter­ested in the ser­vices Cot­trell’s bank could of­fer. They wanted to meet at the ear­li­est pos­si­ble con­ve­nience in Amer­ica. ‘I checked with my boss and with com­pli­ance: that’s a no-no. I first said I couldn’t meet with them but while my more ex­pe­ri­enced col­leagues weren’t will­ing to take the risks in North Amer­ica, I was. The meet­ing was pro­posed to be in Las Ve­gas. And I can’t re­sist gam­bling.’

Cot­trell flew to Ve­gas and met the two busi­ness­men in their ho­tel suite. Din­ner fol­lowed at ‘a great Miche­lin-star res­tau­rant, and I get handed the wine list. I was 20 years old and hadn’t been ID’D. When the pud­ding ar­rived, one of the busi­ness­men leaned in to the round mar­ble table and said, “Ge­orge, we’ve got some­thing to tell you. We make about two and a half mil­lion a year traf­fick­ing co­caine from Phoenix to New York, in net prof­its.” So I say, “What about the prop­erty?” “Oh, we do have some.” I say, “Well, this is very in­ter­est­ing, what kind of mar­gins are there on that?” Yeah, drunk me, ask­ing a ques­tion.’

The meet­ing con­tin­ued for an­other 10 min­utes then Cot­trell took the next flight back to Lon­don. ‘It was a very scary sit­u­a­tion when you’re sit­ting in front of two peo­ple who have just rep­re­sented that they’re traf­fick­ing mil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of drugs on a reg­u­lar ba­sis,’ he re­calls. ‘I knew that I had a duty to re­port their se­ri­ous crim­i­nal­ity. But a col­league said, “If you do re­port it, we’re go­ing to be un­der the mi­cro­scope. If they con­tact you again, then you re­port it.”’

Cot­trell heard noth­ing. ‘I just put it down to a bad ex­pe­ri­ence,’ he says.

That was back in 2014. It wasn’t un­til July 2016 that Cot­trell stepped off that plane in Chicago and was placed un­der ar­rest. He had no idea why he was be­ing charged. From jail, he was al­lowed to call the Bri­tish em­bassy in Washington DC, who told him that the US State Depart­ment had just in­formed them that he had been ar­rested for ‘fi­nan­cial ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties’. It was now 3am on Satur­day morn­ing and he was al­lowed one more call, to his par­ents in Lon­don, which ended swiftly when the phone went dead. He had no lawyer, no phone and still no idea what these ‘ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties’ were.

On the eighth floor of a sky­scraper fed­eral pri­son in down­town Chicago, Cot­trell was strip-searched, put into an orange jump­suit and told to sleep on a metal bench, ahead of his court ap­pear­ance the fol­low­ing day.

The next morn­ing, he was trans­ported to court in a po­lice con­voy. ‘I felt like I was a ter­ror­ist,’ he says. ‘I’m brought up in shack­les and hand­cuffs, chained round my waist. And I walk into this court­room, and a di­shev­elled lawyer hands me his card, and says, “Mr Cot­trell, un­til you can ar­range your own coun­sel, I’m a pub­lic de­fender. I’m go­ing to be rep­re­sent­ing you.”’ The lawyer handed Cot­trell an eight-page doc­u­ment in which Ge­orge read that he was be­ing charged on 21 counts in­clud­ing ‘con­spir­acy to com­mit money-laun­der­ing, mon­ey­laun­der­ing, wire fraud, mail fraud, black­mail and ex­tor­tion. Penal­ties: 20 years, ba­si­cally, each charge,’ he says.

Cott rell was later ac­cused of us­ing var­i­ous banks un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion to laun­der dirty money for drug car­tels and other crim­i­nals, and also of­fer­ing his off­shore ex­per­tise on the dark web. He was to learn that the two busi­ness­men he had met in Las Ve­gas were in fact IRS fed­eral agents who were ‘all wired. The whole res­tau­rant was staffed by the Depart­ment of the Trea­sury and the IRS Crim­i­nal In­ves­ti­ga­tions Divi­sion, and it was all one big set-up.’ His bond hear­ing was set for the fol­low­ing Tues­day. He was sent back to a max­i­mum-se­cu­rity fed­eral jail in Chicago where 80 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion was black, and most of the rest His­panic or Asian. ‘I was the only white per­son there. And I’d been wear­ing a suit all my life,’ Cot­trell re­calls. ‘If I learnt any­thing from watch­ing pri­son shows, it was don’t show any signs of weak­ness or you’ll be preyed upon.

‘My sec­ond cell­mate was a no­to­ri­ous mur­derer and gang­ster in Chicago called Paris Poe. He was re­spon­si­ble for the mur­der of sev­eral peo­ple, in­clud­ing an FBI in­for­mant in front of his wife, six-year-old and four-year-old.’

For­tu­nately for Cot­trell, he was ‘in­vis­i­ble to these gang­sters be­cause I had no gang af­fil­i­a­tion’. He also needed to con­vince his fel­low in­mates that he was not a sex of­fender. ‘When I said I was charged with money-laun­der­ing, that was fine.’

Cot­trell was de­nied bail. Over the months, he couldn’t re­sist the op­por­tu­nity to gam­ble and ran up a poker debt with the b oss of an East­ern Europ ean gang calle d Mafia Mitsu (Cot­trell’s lawyers were able to send funds to clear the debt). Then, with help from his lawyers (funded by his fam­ily), he was moved to a max­i­mum-se­cu­rity pri­son in Ari­zona. There, he and his lawyers fi­nally re­ceived the court doc­u­ments with all the ev­i­dence and charges.

In the event, the ev­i­dence against Cot­trell ap­par­ently didn’t add up. Of the 21 counts against him, 20 were dis­missed af­ter he pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and was re­leased at sen­tenc­ing in March. While the IRS thought Cot­trell was the bank­ing linch­pin of a drug car­tel, it would ap­pear that ac­tu­ally he was a young man mak­ing drunken claims in a Ve­gas res­tau­rant. Af­ter eight months of in­car­cer­a­tion, he was free.

Look­ing back on his or­deal, how does he think Farage, his UKIP col­leagues and his fam­ily re­gard his be­hav­iour? There was, he says, ‘Ut­ter shock and dis­be­lief given how in­volved I was. Every­body stuck by me and sup­ported me.’ He ad­mits he was wrong not to re­port what ‘I knew to be se­ri­ous crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity’; more­over, he was not li­censed by the US Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion to of­fer fi­nan­cial ad­vice in the US, and ad­mits to ‘en­abling and pro­mot­ing ag­gres­sive tax avoid­ance pro­grammes. I built my rep­u­ta­tion on in­tegrity and ab­so­lute dis­cre­tion. This episode has tar­nished many peo­ple, not just my­self.’

Cot­trell ad­mits he was fool­ish but claims that he has learnt much. ‘My youth and in­ex­pe­ri­ence were ruth­lessly ex­ploited,’ he says. ‘It was truly hum­bling, and has un­doubt­edly made me stronger. [In pri­son] I read a huge amount of his­tory and po­lit­i­cal books and I as­sisted other in­mates with le­gal and tax ad­vice by host­ing an in­for­mal le­gal surgery.’

He adds ,‘ I in­ter­acted with a seg­ment of so­ci­ety I or­di­nar­ily would have been obliv­i­ous to. Be­ing in­car­cer­ated made me re­alise how priv­i­leged I have been all my life and, while I am grate­ful I never had a drug ad­dic­tion, I fi­nally re­alised that I had a gam­bling ad­dic­tion that was al­most as dam­ag­ing.’ Cot­trell says he even­tu­ally kicked the gam­bling habit in pri­son. What is he do­ing now for a liv­ing? Char­i­ta­ble work, he tells me.

A year af­ter the ref­er­en­dum poll, Cot­trell at­tended a lav­ish an­niver­sary party held at a man­sion owned by Ar­ron Banks out­side Bris­tol. ‘The party was fan­tas­tic and de­spite my un­for­tu­nate ad­ven­ture, and ev­ery­thing I went through, I still main­tain 2016 was the best year of my life,’ he says. ‘Brexit and Trump. Noth­ing bet­ter.’

Cot­trell was ac­cused of of­fer­ing his off­shore ex­per­tise on the dark web

News­pa­per re­ports high­lighted Cot­trell’s con­nec­tion to UKIP and Farage Be­low

Cot­trell’s ar­rest mugshot, July 2016 Be­low

Be­low withnigel farage in west­min­ster, the morn­ing of the eu ref­er­en­dum re­sult

Be­lowcot­trell with ma­jor ukip donor ar­ron Banks, 2016

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