The taxpayer-backed satellite broadband provider OneWeb is being sued for alleged fraud, breach of contract and misrepresentation by a former business partner of Donald Trump.
Giorgi Rtskhiladze, an American-Georgian businessman, claims that he was not paid for arranging space rocket-launch rights for OneWeb in Kazakhstan. The company received public funding in 2020 after filing for bankruptcy and winning the support of Dominic Cummings, then the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser.
The $30m claim, filed in New York, alleges that Mr Rtskhiladze successfully lobbied the Kazakh government to allow OneWeb to launch satellites from Kazakhstan and operate a ground station for its internet network but was not paid.
Mr Rtskhiladze alleges that OneWeb defrauded him by keeping him engaged with Kazakh officials but then terminated his services only after he demanded payment. His work led to “hundreds of millions of dollars in value” for OneWeb, he claims.
The businessman told The Telegraph: “This lawsuit is about trust and that’s been broken by OneWeb.
“I accepted OneWeb’s request to advise them because I recognised immediately that OneWeb had the potential to achieve global connectivity. Given that cybersecurity poses a real threat to global security, I believed that OneWeb could ultimately play an important role in bringing transparency, inclusiveness and economic prosperity via cyberspace to remote and rural areas of the world by providing internet coverage and central Asia was the ideal region.
“When I met OneWeb in June 2019, it was only a start-up. At that time, I was told that Russia was a major obstacle in OneWeb’s efforts.
“Apparently the company was banned from Russia at the Kremlin’s directive and so for me to attempt to help OneWeb enter a territory bordering Russia was not an easy decision, especially when my engagement with OneWeb started at the same time that I was wrongfully depicted in the Mueller report as a ‘nefarious’ Russian businessman who had knowledge of compromising tapes of Donald Trump”.
OneWeb strongly denies Mr Rtskhiladze’s allegations.
Chris McLaughlin, a spokesperson for the company, said: “These claims are without merit, unfounded and will be vigorously opposed through the US courts.”
A source close to OneWeb said: “Rtskhiladze was not involved and I have never heard of him. There was talk of Kazakh Sovereign money being invested but nothing materialised. In fact, the rocket launch contract was awarded to the French company Arianespace in 2015.”
The lawsuit will focus attention on a company that was funded and owned by the British taxpayer after Mr Cummings persuaded Boris Johnson to authorise a £400m rescue of OneWeb – then an unknown firm that was in bankruptcy proceedings – despite the objections of senior civil servants.
OneWeb aims to put hundreds of small and relatively cheap satellites in a low orbit to provide broadband coverage for governments and companies all over the world. The plans require heavy investment and are in competition with major technology players including Elon Musk and Amazon.
Some in Whitehall viewed the public investment in OneWeb as high risk and reckless, but Mr Cummings pushed it through. He exchanged texts and emails with the company via “backchannels” and then persuaded Boris Johnson to authorise the funding in exchange for a 50pc stake despite strong opposition from Treasury officials. The rescue package was part of a consortium with the Indian telecom billionaire Sunil Bharti Mittal and the taxpayer stake has been reduced by further fundraising.
The controversy over the bailout is likely to be reignited by the ongoing lawsuit as the British government nevertheless remains a significant shareholder in the company.
Mr Rtskhiladze is also a former business associate of Donald Trump. He worked with the Trump Organisation on a proposal for a tower in the Georgian black sea. He was named in the Mueller report which investigated claims of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
The report quotes a text sent in October 2016, by Mr Rtskhiladze to Michael Cohen, then Trump’s lawyer, which stated that he “stopped the flow of tapes from Russia but not sure if there’s anything else”. The report claims that Mr Rtskhiladze said the recordings were “compromising tapes of Trump” and that “he was told the tapes were fake”. The well-connected Georgian strongly denies these claims.
Mr Rtskhiladze said: “The US government and Mueller defamed me by insinuating that I destroyed compromising tapes of Donald Trump held by Russians to help Trump get elected. This was false.”