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Data Firm Tied to Trump Campaign Talked Business With Russians

March 18,2018 10:09

When the Russia question came up during a hearing at the British Parliament last month, Alexander Nix did not hesitate. “We've never worked in Russia,” said Mr. Nix, head of a data consulting firm that advised the Trump campaign on targeting voters ...


Lukoil was interested in how data was used to target American voters, according to two former company insiders who said there were at least three meetings with Lukoil executives in London and Turkey. SCL and Lukoil denied that the talks were political in nature, and SCL also said there were no meetings in London.
The contacts took place as Cambridge Analytica was building a roster of Republican political clients in the United States — and harvesting the Facebook profiles of over 50 million users to develop tools it said could analyze voters’ behavior.
Cambridge Analytica also included extensive questions about Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, in surveys it was carrying out in American focus groups in 2014. It is not clear what — or which client — prompted the line of questioning, which asked for views on topics ranging from Mr. Putin’s popularity to Russian expansionism.
On two promotional documents obtained by The New York Times, SCL said it did business in Russia. In both documents, the country is highlighted on world maps that specify the location of SCL clients, with one of the maps noting that the clients were for the firm’s elections division. In a statement, SCL said an employee had done “commercial work” about 25 years ago “for a private company in Russia.”
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President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, left, meeting with Vagit Alekperov. He is the head of Lukoil, an oil giant that was in talks with Cambridge Analytica employees. Credit Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin, via ReutersCambridge Analytica has been a political flash point since its role in the Trump campaign attracted scrutiny after the election. While Mr. Nix’s firm turned over some records to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence during its investigation of Russian interference, Democrats on the committee want a fuller review. “It is imperative to interview a broader range of individuals employed by or linked to Cambridge Analytica,” they said in a report this month.
Asked about the Russian oil company, a spokesman for SCL said that in 2014 the firm’s commercial division “discussed helping Lukoil Turkey better engage with its loyalty-card customers at gas stations.” The spokesman said SCL was not ultimately hired.
Arash Repac, chief executive of Lukoil Eurasia Petrol, offered a different explanation for the talks. He said that a meeting he attended with SCL in Turkey involved a promotional campaign with local soccer teams.
“We needed somebody to guide us with the customer data that we were collecting,” he wrote in response to a question from The Times. “Even though our campaign went ahead, we decided not to cooperate with SCL. No contracts were signed.”
But Christopher Wylie, who helped found Cambridge Analytica and develop the company’s voter-profiling technology, said Lukoil showed interest in how the company used data to tailor messaging to American voters.
“I remember being super confused,” said Mr. Wylie, who took part in one of the Lukoil meetings.
“I kept asking Alexander, ‘Can you explain to me what they want?’” he said, referring to Mr. Nix. “I don’t understand why Lukoil wants to know about political targeting in America.”
“We’re sending them stuff about political targeting — they then come and ask more about political targeting,” Mr. Wylie said, adding that Lukoil “just didn’t seem to be interested” in how the techniques could be used commercially.
Mr. Wylie, a former contractor, left SCL before the talks concluded and could not say what became of the relationship with the oil company. He had a falling out with SCL and tried to set up a rival business. SCL said he had violated a nondisclosure agreement and that his comments were an attempt to hurt the company.
A second person familiar with the discussions backed up Mr. Wylie’s account, but spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a confidentiality agreement.
Though Lukoil is not state-owned, it depends on Kremlin support, and its chief executive, Vagit Alekperov, has met with Mr. Putin on a number of occasions. Reuters reported last year that Lukoil and other companies received instructions from the state energy ministry on providing news stories favorable to Russian leadership.
Mr. Nix, for his part, has long been adamant. “We just don’t have business in Russia,” he told TechCrunch last year. “We have no involvement in Russia, never have done.”

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