Russian Billionaire Files Application Seeking Testimony of British Spy Behind Trump Dossier
Documents filed in a British court are the latest move in a complex international legal battle.
A Russian tech billionaire is asking a U.K. court to compel testimony from a former British intelligence officer who compiled the now-famous dossier on U.S. President Donald Trump’s alleged links to Russia, according to court documents reviewed by Foreign Policy.
The application to the British court, dated Nov. 3, is just the latest legal maneuver in a case that has become emblematic of the international political intrigue that followed Trump’s surprise electoral victory a year ago. The three-way legal battle involves a Russian businessman who says he’s been unfairly linked to the hacking of the Democratic Party, a former spy paid to dig up dirt on a real estate mogul who is now president, and a feisty news organization best known for publishing cat videos and listicles.
Lawyers for Aleksej Gubarev, who owns the Dallas-based web hosting firm Webzilla, are seeking to force Christopher Steele, a former MI6 officer, to provide testimony in the billionaire’s case against the American news organization BuzzFeed, and its editor, Ben Smith, in a U.S. court in the southern district of Florida.
The application filed in U.K. court last week is the second step in a complex process required to compel testimony from someone in another country for a U.S. court case. In July, a U.S. federal judge in Miami issued an order in the suit against BuzzFeed, allowing Gubarev’s lawyers to seek a British order to depose Steele, who lives in the United Kingdom.
Steele was hired in 2016 by an American firm, Fusion GPS, to compile information on Trump, who was then running for president. Initially, Fusion was paid by the Washington Free Beacon to investigate Republican candidates, including Trump; later, the firm received money from a law firm tied to the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton campaign.
The 35-page dossier Steele wrote, which included allegations of a Trump sex tape’s existence, was published by BuzzFeed in January 2017 and is now at the center of several legal cases. Among other unverified claims, the dossier asserts that Gubarev’s company, Webzilla, was involved in a Russia-directed campaign to hack Democratic Party computer systems in the runup to the 2016 presidential election.
Gubarev has strongly disputed that claim and is now suing both BuzzFeed and Steele.
In parallel to those court cases is special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, which overlaps with allegations made in the dossier.
The application to the British court seeks testimony from Steele on, among other issues, payments he received, the reasons for the dossier’s creation, sources and methods for its preparation, and information on who it was distributed to, including media organizations.
Lawyers for Steele and Gubarev have been wrangling for months over whether the former intelligence officer will have to testify in the BuzzFeed case.
Compelling Steele to testify in the U.S. case is part of Gubarev’s strategy to demonstrate that BuzzFeed was negligent in publishing the unverified allegations in the dossier. BuzzFeed’s legal strategy, on the other hand, is to use the court case to prove that the allegations contained in the dossier might indeed be true.
Last week, BuzzFeed subpoenaed the Democratic National Committee for records relating to last year’s hack of its servers.
A spokesperson for BuzzFeed declined to comment on Gubarev’s application in the British courts. Lawyers representing Steele did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Lawyers for Steele have previously argued that making him testify in the U.S. court case against BuzzFeed is simply a way of getting information for use in a separate British court case that Gubarev is pursuing against Steele and his U.K.-based company, Orbis Business Intelligence.
It’s unclear if the bid to compel Steele’s testimony will be successful. Gubarev’s lawyer, Evan Fray-Witzer, told FP that Steele is “attempting to resist having to testify in London, just as he did in Florida.”
The application in the U.K. says Gubarev’s lawyers intend to depose Steele in London in December, but no immediate ruling is expected in the British court case, according to Fray-Witzer.
“If and when we get to depose Mr. Steele, we expect to hear that he made no attempts whatsoever to verify the allegations, had no reason to trust the source of the allegations, but passed them on anyway because it made for a good story,” he said. “Surely if Mr. Steele or Fusion thought their work could withstand scrutiny, they wouldn’t be working so hard to keep it hidden.”
— Elias Groll contributed to this article.