A former aide to ex-UKIP leader Nigel Farage is facing a jail term of up to 20 years in the United States after being caught promising to launder dirty money for drug traffickers on the dark web.
George Swinfen Cottrell, a 22-year-old peer’s nephew, is said to have posed as an underworld financier, promising drug dealers he could launder tens of thousands of euros a month.
Unbeknownst to the aristocratic progeny, who is believed to be worth an estimated £250 million (€294 million), the organised criminals he thought he was in contact with were actually undercover FBI agents.
According to a plea agreement filed by prosecutors in Arizona last month, Cottrell confessed to communicating with the supposed traffickers, admitting to contacting individuals in Phoenix from London with via associate referred to as “Banker”.
“I explained various ways criminal proceeds could be laundered – for example, methods to transfer large amounts of cash out of the United States without triggering reporting requirements and ways to disguise the proceeds as legitimate business income for tax purposes,” he said.
“I falsely claimed that I would launder the criminal proceeds through my bank accounts for a fee. Rather than launder any of the money, though, Banker and I intended to retain the money.”
Prosecutors argue the plot began when “Banker” advertised money laundering services on the dark web. When undercover agents responded to the offer, they were directed to Cottrell, who told them he could legitimise their ill-gotten gains by routing them through offshore accounts.
He was arrested in Chicago while travelling back to London with Farage from the Republican National Convention in July last year, and has been held in custody since then.
Cottrell, the nephew of Lord Hesketh, a former Conservative treasurer who defected to UKIP in 2011, had initially been charged with 21 crimes, including money laundering, extortion and fraud. These were reduced to a single charge of wire fraud after he agreed to a plea bargain.
The maximum sentence for the crime is 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 (€240,000), although Cottrell is likely to be handed a much lesser penalty when he is sentenced in March.
A judge denied Cottrell bail, deeming he posed a serious flight risk. Court documents said he had a serious gambling problem that led to him to take irrational risks.
Speaking on UK breakfast television, Farage said: “He’s not an employee, he was a volunteer. He was unpaid. He was helping me do stuff. He’d been part of our party for a couple of years.
“We never had any suspicions about him at all. He faced 21 charges in America, 20 have been dropped. He’s pleaded guilty to a C-grade felony. I can’t be responsible for what everyone around me does.”