Even before Uber’s top executives arrived in Davos in January 2016, its bosses were trying to secure invitations to the exclusive party hosted by the billionaire Russian metals magnate Oleg Deripaska. Famous for its free-flowing vodka, the event was an invitation-only, after-hours fixture of the world economic forum, the annual gathering of corporate leaders and politicians in the Swiss Alps.
Fortunately for Uber, it had hired someone who could pull strings. “Put them on list at door,” ordered Peter Mandelson, according to messages in the Uber files data leak.
Lord Mandelson’s business partner at their “strategic advisory” firm Global Counsel, Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, quickly secured entry for a group of Uber executives. And when the big night came, one of Uber’s top staffers, Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, danced exuberantly with a troupe of costumed Cossack musicians.
It was known that Mandelson, a member of the House of Lords, was a longtime friend of Deripaska. But leaked emails and text messages reveal the full extent to which the former Labour minister, who served under Tony Blair, has monetised his access to a wider array of pro-Kremlin billionaires.
Documents show how Global Counsel secretly worked behind the scenes for Uber, with Mandelson and Wegg-Prosser appearing to operate as discreet advisers for the company in Russia between 2015 and 2016, brokering introductions with senior government officials and powerful business figures.
The pair helped Uber access Russia’s financial and political elites and manage sensitive relationships with oligarchs who have since been placed under sanctions by the UK and EU in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Global Counsel, which was set up after Mandelson left government in 2010, has previously said it is does not engage in lobbying and differentiated its activities from those of traditional public affairs consultancies. It stresses that it offers companies strategic and policy advice, not lobbying services.
However, the documents suggest the firm played an instrumental role in supporting Uber’s own lobbying activities and engaged with politicians and policymakers on the company’s behalf in both Russia and Europe.
The files also raise questions for Global Counsel about what Wegg-Prosser knew about a secret payment Uber made to a political operative in Russia despite internal concerns within Uber that paying the lobbyist carried a risk of corruption.
Lawyers for Global Counsel said the firm was not involved in any arrangement between Uber and the Russian lobbyist. They stressed Global Counsel “expressly refutes any suggestion whatsoever” that it was in breach of any anti-corruption laws.
But the files place a spotlight on Mandelson and Wegg-Prosser, a former communications adviser to Blair, and their relationships with people who have allegedly benefited from maintaining close ties to the Kremlin.
‘We want someone aligned with Putin’
In early 2015, as Uber faced significant headwinds in Russia and found itself with few friends, Wegg-Prosser met Uber’s Moscow-based executives and impressed them with his address book. “Use this Wegg-Prosser guy on demand for his contacts and access,” one executive recommended.
Weeks later, Mandelson visited Uber’s international headquarters in Amsterdam to discuss how Global Counsel could help the company, sealing what would become a close working relationship with Uber’s chief lobbyist in Europe, Mark MacGann.
The relationship would generate almost £200,000 in fees for Global Counsel between 2015 and 2016, documents suggest, as Uber frequently turned to Mandelson and Wegg-Prosser for help in Russia and advice on its lobbying strategy across Europe.
In 2015, Uber was seeking “strategic allies” in Russia and had begun approaching politically connected oligarchs it believed could help lobby for the company’s interests. Emil Michael, one of Uber’s top executives at the time, had described the company’s goal to colleagues: “We want someone aligned with Putin.”
For advice on navigating Russia’s business elites, Uber turned to Mandelson and Wegg-Prosser. Both knew Moscow well. At the time, Mandelson sat on the board of one of Russia’s largest conglomerates, while Wegg-Prosser – a former journalist who worked at the Guardian between 2000 and 2005 – had worked as a senior executive at a Russian media company.
When Uber struck a $200m investment deal with a firm controlled by Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven in 2016, Wegg-Prosser recommended it establish a “direct line” with the two oligarchs. This was something he could help with, he said, boasting of his ability to talk directly with Aven over the phone.
Files suggest Mandelson also played his part and helped Uber secure an April 2016 meeting with Aven to discuss how the former minister – who at the time attended frequent meetings with Putin – could help the company overcome the political issues it faced in Russia. Afterwards, Wegg-Prosser thanked Aven for a “very reassuring” meeting.
Months later, as he helped Uber prepare a trip by Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, to Moscow, Wegg-Prosser turned to Aven again, this time for a “cheeky”, though ultimately unsuccessful, request: could he fix a meeting between Kalanick and Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov?
“Might you be able to make a call/connect us?” Wegg-Prosser asked. Mandelson followed up, thanking Aven for his support.
Aven told the Guardian he knew Wegg-Prosser “very well” and frequently spoke to him, however the oligarch said he stayed out of politics and was not involved in Uber’s Russian lobbying efforts. In a statement, Uber said its current leadership “disavows any previous relationships with anyone connected to the Putin regime”.
Access was not all that Wegg-Prosser and Mandelson offered. Documents suggest the pair counselled Uber on the realities of doing business in Moscow and the sensitivities of operating in often opaque waters.
When Uber agreed to make a large payment to Fridman and Aven’s company’s influential lobbyist Vladimir Senin, Uber’s lawyers raised concerns the payment risked breaching US anti-bribery laws. The issue is said to have caused considerable “internal strife” at Uber but Wegg-Prosser was on hand to advise on handling the situation.
Initially he said he would not be “comfortable” with paying Senin, but also appeared dismissive when Uber’s lawyers proposed a series of suggestions about inserting anti-corruption provisions into Senin’s contract.
In an email to Uber’s MacGann, who asked his views on the proposals, Wegg-Prosser wrote: “I see this all the time from idiot lawyers in the US who think that the world should work like a suburb of Seattle.” He said the idea of requesting the oligarchs’ lobbyist to complete compliance training “will make you look absurd. You just need a contract that says they carry the risk.”
Files suggest that despite his earlier discomfort, Wegg-Prosser at one stage became involved in discussions related to the payment and personally assured Aven the lobbyist had received a financial reward.
“I spoke to Aven today re Senin,” Wegg-Prosser told a senior Uber executive in July 2016. “I explained Uber v grateful to for Senin support but had put work on hold. Said Senin had been paid properly for his support (I mentioned number). Aven said he knew, was glad to hear moving in right direction and knew Uber had done right thing.”
Senin did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
An influencers’ dinner
Mandelson and Wegg-Prosser advised Uber there was a greater prize than the Fridman and Aven relationship. They urged the company to cultivate Herman Gref, the chief executive of the state-controlled Sberbank and a key Moscow powerbroker. “In the long run, Gref is more important,” Wegg-Prosser told Uber.
A former economy minister under Putin, Gref had earned a reputation as an influential but liberal adviser in the president’s ruling circle. The pair had first worked together in St Petersburg in the 1990s. In March, the US imposed sanctions on Gref, describing him as a “close Putin associate”. Gref did not respond to requests for comment.
According to internal messages exchanged between Uber lobbyists, Mandelson set up a key meeting with the state banker in Moscow in July 2015. The following year, when Gref attended Uber’s headquarters in San Francisco, Global Counsel was described by MacGann as the “architect” of the visit.
Before Davos in 2016, Wegg-Prosser offered to help Uber’s leadership secure a seat at a key Russian gathering hosted by Gref at a five-star Alpine hotel. “The event is always the main Russian discussion forum. PM usually does a little turn,” he wrote to MacGann, referring to Mandelson.
Later, in June 2016, Wegg-Prosser played a key role in organising an “influencers’ dinner” in Moscow hosted by Gref for Uber. He helped set up the event, crafting the invitation list and seating plan that placed influential Russian business people and government ministers alongside senior Uber executives.
He was also keen to ensure he had a place at the table. “I am a hired gun I know, but I do want to attend the dinner,” he insisted to MacGann.
But Uber’s hired guns did not come cheap. Alarmed by escalating fees charged by Mandelson and Wegg-Prosser’s firm, a US-based executive warned: “These guys are extremely pricey and kind of breaking the budget.”
MacGann was clear about their contribution, stressing their role in securing meetings with senior figures in the Kremlin.
When an Uber executive dragged her feet on paying Global Counsel’s fees, Wegg-Prosser bristled, comparing its work in Russia to the diplomacy of two former US secretaries of state. “She needs to understand we’ve done the type of heavy lifting an Albright or Kissinger would be charging $100,000s for.”
In a statement, Global Counsel said it stopped working for Uber in 2017. Mandelson’s company said it was appointed by Uber’s European policy team to provide advice “regarding the company’s international strategy” and the work was “undertaken in adherence with all relevant EU and UK guidelines”. It said the firm made clear in February it does not have any Russian clients.
A spokesperson for Kalanick said his involvement in Uber’s Russia strategy was limited and he was “not aware of anyone acting on Uber’s behalf in Russia who engaged in any conduct that would have violated Russian or US law”.
By January 2018 – months before the US imposed sanctions on Deripaska citing his alleged close ties to the Russian state as well as allegations of money laundering, racketeering and extortion, which he denied – Mandelson was back in Davos for another of the oligarch’s famed annual parties.
This time, Enrique Iglesias gave a private performance and it was the former Labour minister who made his way on to the dance floor. Amid a haze of dry ice, a photographer captured Mandelson dancing as the Latin pop star worked his way through hits including Hero and Tonight (I’m Lovin’ You).