Browder and Edmond Safra (1932–1999) founded Hermitage Capital Management in 1996 for the purpose of investing initial seed capital of $25 million in Russia during the period of the mass privatization after the fall of the Soviet Union. Beny Steinmetz was another of the original investors in Hermitage.
Following the Russian financial crisis of 1998, Browder remained committed to Hermitage’s original mission of investing in Russia, despite significant outflows from the fund. Hermitage became a prominent activist shareholder in the Russian gas giant Gazprom, the large oil company Surgutneftegaz, RAO UES, Sberbank, Sidanco, Avisma and Volzhanka. Browder exposed management corruption and corporate malfeasance in these partly state-owned companies. He has been quoted as saying: “You had to become a shareholder activist if you didn’t want everything stolen from you”.
In 1999, Avisma filed a RICO lawsuit against Browder and other Avisma investors including Kenneth Dart, alleging they illegally siphoned company assets into offshore accounts and then transferred the funds to US accounts at Barclays. Browder and his co-defendants settled with Avisma in 2000; they sold their Avisma shares as part of the confidential settlement agreement.
In 1995–2006 Hermitage Capital Management was one of the largest foreign investors in Russia, and Browder amassed millions through his management of the fund. In both 2006 and 2007, he earned an estimated £125-150 million
In March 2013, HSBC, a bank that serves as the trustee and manager of Hermitage Capital Management, announced that it would end the fund’s operations in Russia. The decision was taken amid two legal cases against Browder: a libel court case in London and a trial in absentia for tax evasion in Moscow.
In 2006, after ten years of business deals in Russia, Browder was blacklisted by the Russian government as a “threat to national security” and denied entry to the country. The Economist wrote that the Russian government blacklisted Browder because he interfered with the flow of money to “corrupt bureaucrats and their businessmen accomplices”. Browder had earlier supported Russian president Vladimir Putin.
As reported in 2008 by The New York Times, “over the next two years several of his associates and lawyers, as well as their relatives, became victims of crimes, including severe beatings and robberies during which documents were taken”. In June 2007, dozens of police officers “swooped down on the Moscow offices of Hermitage and its law firm, confiscating documents and computers. When a member of the firm protested that the search was illegal, he was beaten by officers and hospitalized for two weeks, said the firm’s head, Jamison R. Firestone.” Hermitage became “victim of what is known in Russia as ‘corporate raiding’: seizing companies and other assets with the aid of corrupt law enforcement officials and judges”. Three Hermitage holding companies were seized on what the company’s lawyers insist were bogus charges.
The raids in June 2007 enabled corrupt law enforcement officers to steal the corporate registration documents of three Hermitage holding companies. They perpetrated a fraud, claiming (and receiving) the $230 million of taxes paid by those companies to the Russian state in 2006. In November 2008 one of Hermitage’s auditors, Sergei Magnitsky, was arrested. He was charged with the very tax evasion that he was investigating. Magnitsky died on November 16, 2009 in prison, after eleven months in pretrial detention, nearly the limit allowed under the law.
As a result of the controversy related to his arrest and evidence of mistreatment and abuse, his death aroused international coverage and outrage. Magnitsky’s death was the catalyst for passage by the U.S. Congress, of the Magnitsky Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama on December 14, 2012. The act directly targeted individuals involved in the Magnitsky affair by prohibiting their entrance to the United States and their use of its banking system. The Russian government too retaliated by prohibiting adoption of Russian children by American citizens, and prohibiting certain individuals from entering Russia.
In February 2013, Russian officials announced that Browder and Magnitsky would both be tried for evading $16.8 million in taxes. In March 2013, Russian authorities announced that they would be investigating Hermitage’s acquisition of Gazprom shares worth $70 million. The investigation will be focusing on whether Browder violated any Russian laws when Hermitage used Russian companies registered in the region of Kalmykia to buy shares. (An investigation by the Council of Europe’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights cleared Browder of the accusations of improprieties that surfaced at this time.) At the time, according to the Russian law, foreigners were barred from directly owning Gazprom shares. Browder has also been charged with trying to gain access to Gazprom’s financial reports.
Browder admitted having sought influence in Gazprom but denied any wrongdoing. He said that purchasing Gazprom shares was an investment in the Russian economy, and the desire to influence the Gazprom management was driven by the need to expose a “huge fraud going on at the company”. He also said that the scheme of using Russian-registered subsidiaries entitled to tax advantages was practised by other foreign investors at the time and was not illegal. He also said that he believed the trial was a response to the United States passing the Magnitsky Act, which had blacklisted Russian officials involved in Magnitsky’s death from entering the U.S. The Financial Times reported that this trial was the first in Russian history that included a dead defendant.
Amnesty International described the trial as “a whole new chapter in Russia’s worsening human rights record” and a “sinister attempt to deflect attention from those who committed the crimes Magnitsky exposed”. The American weekly magazine The Nation had said in December 2012 that the Magnitsky Act “recklessly and needlessly jeopardized US-Russian cooperation in vital areas from Afghanistan and the Middle East to international terrorism and nuclear proliferation”.
On 11 July 2013, Browder was convicted in absentia by a district criminal court in Moscow on charges under article 199 of the RF Criminal Code (tax-evasion by organisations), and sentenced to nine years. Magnitsky was posthumously convicted of fraud. In May 2013 and again in July 2013, Interpol rejected requests by Russia’s Interior Ministry to put Browder on its search list and locate and arrest him, saying that Russia’s case against him was “predominantly political”.
In April 2014, the European Parliament unanimously passed a resolution to impose sanctions on more than 30 Russians complicit in the Magnitsky case; the first time in the parliament’s history that a vote has been held to establish a public sanctions list.