UK's Leave EU campaigner says he's no evil geniusJune 12, 2018 5:04pm

LONDON (AP) — A millionaire backer of the successful campaign to pull Britain out of the European Union lashed out Tuesday at lawmakers investigating fake news surrounding the Brexit referendum, arguing he was being discredited because of his political views.

Testifying before a Parliament committee, Arron Banks said he was being targeted in a witch hunt by politicians and journalists who favored remaining in the 28-nation bloc. The insurance executive also rejected the notion that he had dealings with the Kremlin — though he did acknowledge socializing with the Russian ambassador.

"I'd like to think I'm an evil genius with a white cat that kind of controls the whole of western democracy, but clearly that's nonsense" he said, before suggesting the media committee had its own motivations. "You have a vested interest in trying to discredit the Brexit campaign."

Banks had at first rejected the committee's invitation to appear, but changed his mind after the Sunday Times newspaper reported that his contacts with Russian officials before and after the Brexit vote were more numerous than previously acknowledged.

The Times reported that Banks had three meetings with Russian Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko. One of the meetings was a November 2016 lunch three days after Banks visited Donald Trump, then president-elect, along with Farage and another prominent Brexit campaigner, Andy Wigmore.

Banks and Wigmore, who was also testifying before the committee Tuesday, acknowledged that they handed the telephone numbers of the Trump transition team to the Russians after their visit to Trump Tower.

They also acknowledged stretching the truth during the Brexit campaign in hopes of getting to the emotional core of the issue and sparking a reaction.

Banks helped bankroll Leave.EU, the campaign backed by Nigel Farage, the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party. Farage, who pressured the British government to hold a referendum on EU membership, was photographed in front of an anti-immigrant poster critics saw as racist. The group operated separately from the official Vote Leave campaign.

"We were not above using alternative methods to punch home our message or lead people up the garden path if we had to," Banks said.

Wigmore added, "Referendums are not about facts. It's about emotion, and you have got to tap into that emotion."

The comments touched a nerve with committee Chairman Damian Collins, who issued a scathing reaction after the hearing.

"Mr. Banks and Mr. Wigmore themselves put on the record that they frequently lie, exaggerate, misspeak and misunderstand," Collins said. "So it is difficult for the committee to know if we should take all of their answers seriously when it comes to data-sharing and misuse, campaign spending and their meetings with high-ranking Russian officials."

The two men also ruffled feather when they decided to leave before the lawmakers were done asking questions. Banks said they had run past their agreed time and that he had a lunch date.

Democratic Unionist Party lawmaker Ian Paisley later said he had an "entertaining lunch" with the pair after the committee hearing, adding there was "no caviar or vodka."

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