British court rules against Christopher Steele, orders damages paid to businessmen named in dossier

Court rules Steele's firm violated Britain's data privacy law by failing to aggressively check allegations in his dossier

Published: July 8, 2020 8:50am

Updated: July 8, 2020 12:06pm

A British judge ruled Wednesday that Christopher Steele violated a data privacy law by failing to check the accuracy of information in his infamous dossier, ordering the former spy’s firm to pay damages to two businessmen he wrongly accused of making illicit payments in Russia.

Justice Mark Warby of the High Court of England and Wales ordered Steele’s firm, Orbis Business Intelligence, to pay a modest 18,000 English pounds – about $22,596 in American currency – each to Petr Aven and Mikhail Fridman as compensation for a violation of Britain’s Data Protection Act 1998 .

Warby ruled that while Steele had a national security interest to share his intelligence with U.S. and British authorities, several of the allegations in Memo 112 of the Steele dossier were “inaccurate or misleading as a matter of fact.”

The judge ruled Steele violated the law by failing to aggressively check the accuracy of one claim accusing Aven and Fridman of making illicit payments to Russia President Vladimir Putin before distributing it to various U.S. and British figures, including the FBI.

“That is an allegation of serial criminal wrongdoing, over a prolonged period. Even in the limited and specific context of reporting intelligence for the purposes I have mentioned, and despite all the other factors I have listed, the steps taken to verify that proposition fell short of what would have been reasonable,” Warby ruled.

“The allegation clearly called for closer attention, a more enquiring approach, and more energetic checking,” the judge added.

The ruling involves a long-discredited claim in Steele’s dossier – repeatedly used by U.S. news media – that Russia’s Alfa Bank, connected to Aven and Fridman, was transmitting secret messages between Moscow and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.

The FBI concluded the computer pings were not nefarious messages but rather routine behavior most likely connected to email spam. Special Counsel Robert Mueller told Congress last year he did not believe the allegations.

Fridman hailed the ruling in a statement.

“We are delighted with the outcome of this case and that Mr Justice Warby has determined what we have always known to be the case – that the contents of Memorandum 112 are inaccurate and misleading," he said. "Ever since these odious allegations were first made public in January 2017, my partners and I have been resolute and unwavering in our determination to prove that they are untrue, and through this case, we have finally succeeded in doing so.”

Though a matter of British law, the ruling is likely to have impact as well in the United States, where the Justice Department continues to investigate the actions of the FBI in the Russia collusion probe, including its interactions with Steele and agents' honesty with the FISA court.

The judge ruled that in Memo 112, one of several that made up Steele's dossier, there were six factually inaccurate or unproven claims that Steele provided from his alleged intelligence sources including that:

  • the businessmen did not do favors for or receive favors from Putin as the memo claimed;
  • Fridman and Aven did not provide informal foreign policy advice to the Russian leader as Steele alleged;
  • Fridman did not meet with Putin in September 2016 as claimed by Steele's source; 
  • the businessman did not bribe Putin when he was Deputy Mayor of St Petersburg;
  • And Fridman and Aven did not do Putin’s political bidding as the dossier alleged.

The ruling further accentuates that much of the Steele dossier contained unproven Internet rumor or false information, some possible from Russian intelligence, as the Justice Department inspector general concluded last December. Nonetheless, the FBI used evidence from Steele's dossier to support a warrant targeting Trump campaign figures in four occasions, claiming to the court that agents had verified the information.

The judge also concluded that Steele's notes of his first interaction with the FBI about the dossier on July 5, 2016 made clear that his ultimate client for his research project was Hillary Clinton's campaign as directed by her campaign law firm Perkins Coie. The FBI did not disclose that information to the court.

The supposition that the Clinton campaign was the ultimate client "is in line with the FBI Note of 5 July 2016, which records Mr. Steele telling the FBI that Orbis had been instructed by Mr. [Glenn] Simpson of Fusion and 'Democratic Party Associates' but that 'the ultimate client were (sic) the leadership of the Clinton presidential campaign.' The FBI Note also indicates that Mr Steele had been told by that stage that Mrs Clinton herself was aware of what Orbis had been commissioned to do," Warby concluded. 

"I have little reliable evidence as to who exactly was the Ultimate Client, but I have enough to find that Perkins Coie were instructed by one or more people or organizations within the upper echelons of the Democratic Party, concerned to ensure Hillary Clinton’s election as President." the judge added.

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