The Moscow News: American lawyer flees Moscow

February 23, 2010

Jami­son Fire­stone, the col­league of deceased lawyer Sergei Mag­nit­sky, has pub­licly announced that he will not be return­ing to his Moscow office as he seeks to bat­tle cor­rup­tion from London.

The 44 year-old lawyer, who co-founded the Firestone-Duncan law con­sul­tancy firm, said he will con­tinue his fight with what he called “Russ­ian police mafia” from Lon­don and wouldn’t hide in the British capital.

Now, being in Lon­don, I can expose this, but not have to worry being arrested in the morn­ing, like my part­ner Sergei Mag­nit­sky, who was dragged to prison and killed,” Fire­stone told Bloomberg TV.

Mag­nit­sky was rep­re­sent­ing William Brow­der, CEO of Her­mitage Cap­i­tal Man­age­ment, in a series of tax eva­sion accu­sa­tions and counter-accusations against the Inte­rior Min­istry. The invest­ment fund, for­merly the largest in Rus­sia, claims this is yet more evi­dence against the ministry.

What makes this action sig­nif­i­cant is not one par­tic­u­lar deci­sion to leave Rus­sia, but that it rep­re­sents yet another exam­ple of how the Pros­e­cu­tor General’s Office and Inte­rior Min­istry are inca­pable of ful­fill­ing their stated pur­pose — pro­tect­ing the pub­lic and safe­guard­ing state funds”, said a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Her­mitage Cap­i­tal Man­age­ment, who asked not to be named.
Firestone’s deci­sion has received the back­ing of high pro­file fig­ures in Moscow’s busi­ness community.

This is not the first case and this is not a new issue for for­eign busi­ness­men work­ing in Rus­sia, as more peo­ple have sim­i­lar sto­ries and say they were tar­geted,” said Clemens Grafe, chief econ­o­mist with the UBS in Moscow. “If I were him, I would do the same.”

Her­mitage Cap­i­tal said that busi­nesses, includ­ing them­selves, would return to the coun­try “as soon as the rule of law is re-established in Rus­sia” but at the moment the busi­ness cli­mate is too dangerous.

Cur­rently, how­ever, any­one who is invest­ing or doing busi­ness in Rus­sia is not only risk­ing their money, but also their lives, as the Sergey Mag­nit­sky story so trag­i­cally demon­strated,” said the Her­mitage representative.

Oth­ers say that while Firestone’s depar­ture has drawn the spot­light back onto the issue, for­eign investors were already aware of the case.

I don’t think the event by itself is a big issue for for­eign invest­ment cli­mate,” said Grafe. “But Russ­ian pro­fes­sion­als should be even more sen­si­tive to this. Russ­ian peo­ple, like Mag­nit­sky, are well edu­cated and they are doing their job, not being polit­i­cal, and still they get affected.”

This view was backed by the Russo-British Cham­ber of Com­merce which said they’ve seen “ups and downs” in 93 years and Fire­stone leav­ing “won’t pro­duce a mas­sive neg­a­tive effect on the invest­ment climate”.

Admin­is­tra­tive bur­dens on all com­pa­nies — Russ­ian and for­eign — are the prob­lem and more busi­nesses will be com­ing, not leav­ing if they found this get­ting eas­ier,” said the chamber’s direc­tor Chris Gilbert.

The US Cham­ber of Com­merce in Moscow, where Fire­stone used to be on the board of the small busi­ness com­mit­tee, declined to com­ment but reminded that their pres­i­dent Andrew Som­mers wrote a let­ter to Dmitry Medvedev ask­ing him to inter­vene in the Mag­nit­sky case.

Fire­stone also received a less wel­come pack­age, which he called a “Christ­mas gift”, sent to him on behalf of incog­nito “godfathers”.

One day I opened my mail­box and I find out … that some­body has applied for a $21 mil­lion tax refund, forg­ing my sig­na­ture,” said Jami­son Fire­stone. “Some­body went to a lot of trou­ble to make it look like I’m try­ing to take $21 mil­lion from the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment. So, I realised at that point where this is com­ing from; that I’d been a lit­tle too loud protest­ing police cor­rup­tion, and now the police have a “present” for me, so to speak.”

Arti­cle is pub­lished in The Moscow News.

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