A MAJOR donor to the UK Tory party is suspected of pouring Russian money into the group, according to a bank alert filed with the National Crime Agency.

In February 2018, a donation of $630,225 was made in the name of wealthy London art dealer Ehud Sheleg, who was most recently the treasurer of the UK Tory party. The sum was part of a huge fundraising effort that helped propel Boris Johnson into Downing Street before the 2019 General Election.

However, an alert that was filed by Barclays bank last year with the National Crime agency – which has been seen by the New York Times – say that the money originated from the bank account of Sheleg’s father-in-law, Sergei Kopytov.

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Kopytov is a former high-ranking pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politician who now owns hotels and real estate in Crimea and Russia.

The notice filed by Barclays in January 2021 said: “We are able to trace a clear line back from this donation to its ultimate source.”

While flagging the donation, Barclays said they suspected the transfer to be a potentially illegal campaign donation and an act of money laundering.

Sheleg’s lawyer, Thomas Rudkin, has acknowledged that his client received millions from Kopytov in the weeks before the donation was made but insisted that these sums were “entirely separate” from the donation they made to the Tories.

Responding to the New York Times, Rudkin said: “There is absolutely no basis for suggesting that Mr Kopytov’s gift for his daughter was intended as, or for the purpose of making, a political donation to the Conservative Party,”

In the UK it is illegal for political parties to receive donations over £500 from foreign citizens who are not eligible to vote here – which would implicate any donation made by Kopytov as he is not on the electoral register.

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Via a statement issued by Sheleg’s lawyer, Kopytov said he was a Ukrainian citizen and had not made any such donation.

He said: “I have no interest in British politics whatsoever.

“Any donations made by my son-in-law to a British political party have nothing to do with me or with the money I gifted to my daughter.”

According to the alert filed by Barclays, $2.5m was transferred from a Russian bank account in Kopytov’s name in January 2018 and was subsequently moved through empty European bank accounts belonging to Sheleg and his wife.

The alert, which misspelt Sheleg’s wife’s first name, noted that the European bank accounts were returned to zero which “would make it very difficult to argue that the donation was somehow from Ehud or Liilia Sheleg’s personal wealth,”.

When asked about the zero balances, Sheleg’s lawyer said account balances fluctuate and that Sheleg did not depend on the money from his father-in-law to make the donation.

The money eventually ended up in an offshore account linked to Sheleg’s family trust. Finally, the money was moved back into the couples British joint account and the next day was transferred to the Tory party’s bank account.

All the transactions were listed in US Dollars with the Tories registering the donation as £450,000.

Sheleg made several more donations in the following months, including one of £750,000, which made him the largest donor to the Tory party that year.

Warnings around Sheleg’s financial background and connections to Russia were raised soon after the donations but did little to stop Sheleg’s rise to prominence. He hosted the Russian ambassador at the height of the crisis in Crimea when Russia annexed the region from Ukraine.

Private Eye also reported that around that time Sheleg became partners with a Cyprus-based businessman with links to Russian organised crime.

These allegations did little to deter the Tories as Sheleg was appointed a treasurer of the party in the autumn of 2018 and then made the party’s sole treasurer immediately after Johnson became Prime Minister – a position he no longer holds.

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Commenting, SNP MP Alyn Smith said: “For far too long the Tory party has shown themselves quite content to keep their eyes closed and wallets open - with serious questions over Russian-linked money sustaining the party.

"The latest reports by the New York Times only raises further questions that the Tories cannot continue to ignore. They must come clean over the flow of dodgy donations flooding the party’s coffers that can be sourced back to Kremlin-linked figures.

"I am already a litigant on the Russia Report case taking the UK Government to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, this latest revelation confirms we’re right to be concerned.

"I will also be writing to the chair of the ISC, Julian Lewis, asking for a further report into the non-implementation of the ISC Russia Report.

“The SNP has been consistently clear that the UK Government must wake-up and tackle the threats posed by illicit finance and the Tory party's close links to Kremlin-linked cash, as well as implementing the Russia report in full.”