‘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
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