The brother and business partner of new Tory party co-treasurer Ehud Sheleg, was involved in a company promoting a controversial online investment industry that was later associated with serious fraud.
An investigation by Finance Uncovered, Private Eye and The Times of Israel has found that for three years, Ehud’s brother Ran was part of a company that marketed binary options – an industry largely run out of Israel.
Binary options were promoted as a form of financial product to thousands of investors around the world, but their sale was halted by European and Israeli regulators last year when it was found that the industry was rife with fraud.
A senior Israeli police officer said in 2017 “binary options caused Israel’s crime organisations to become significantly stronger”
Ran Sheleg, an Israeli, was a partner in a website binaryaffiliates.com which aimed to make money from promoting binary options brokers who were in some cases even telling investors they could learn to almost double their investments within an hour.
Regulators in various countries around the world would later issue serious warnings about a number of these brokers.
Mr Sheleg, 60, strongly denies he knew anything about fraudulent practice in the industry until the binary options scandal erupted years after he ended his association with binaryaffiliates.com.
He also told Finance Uncovered that he made no profits from binaryaffiliates.com, which he described as a failure. There is no suggestion he committed any fraud.
His brother and business partner, Ehud – one of the Tories’ biggest donors and appointed the party’s co-treasurer and financial gatekeeper last summer – strongly denied any knowledge of binaryaffiliates.com.
He said he had no involvement at all with the website and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by him.
His brother’s involvement in the binary options industry from 2009 until 2012 was established after a wider ranging investigation by Private Eye, The Times of Israel and Finance Uncovered into Ehud’s Mayfair-headquartered Halcyon Gallery, an exclusive art dealership that boasts of close ties to the Royal Family and the Conservative Party.
Ehud, a 63 year old also known as Udi, runs the gallery. It is 50% controlled through a British Virgin Islands company by the Tov Settlement, the Sheleg family trust. Ran Sheleg is the “co-protector” and one of 12 beneficiaries of that trust. Ehud is also a beneficiary.
Ran denied he and his brother were business partners but then added that Ehud had appointed him as director of Halcyon Art International Ltd, a Hong Kong company.
And it was from this company that Ran Sheleg sent a series of emails that would later reveal his involvement in the binary options industry.
The emails, written in 2012, was discovered in the Panama Papers, a huge leaks of documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca that caused international outrage when they were published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2016.
Ran’s emails show his dealings with Mossack Fonseca to set up a BVI company for his binary options business. In the emails, Ran also said he was ending his association with the business, having been involved with it since late 2009.
The business, binaryaffiliates.com, aimed to make money by encouraging people to invest with various binary options brokers. During Ran’s involvement with it, it promoted brands that were telling investors they could make up to 81% returns rapidly.
Affiliate marketers promoted binary options schemes though blog posts, spam emails and videos promising to reveal the secrets of online trading.
Binaryaffiliates.com was paid a commission for each investor it successfully referred. But in the three years that Ran was involved with it, he said it was a failure and that it generated only £122,000 in gross revenues in total, with £118,000 incurred in direct costs alone. He said he did not make any money personally and nor did he take a salary.
At the time, marketing binary options was perfectly legal.
He also said he was “shocked” to discover a few years later that the industry was rife with fraud.
A year after he ended his involvement with the business, one brand, AnyOption, was put on a warning list by regulators in Quebec.
Another brand promoted by binaryaffiliates.com, OptionRally, was also promoted by US citizen Michael Shah, who is currently being prosecuted for fraud by the Commodities and Futures Trading Commission in the US. In an online chatroom in 2014, Shah described the brands he was promoting as “100% BS [bullshit]”.
Also during the time Ran was involved with binaryaffiliates.com, it promoted at least one brand that used the Spot Option trading platform. Last year, a US grand jury indictment against Jared Davis, a US citizen who ran a binary options scheme which used the Spot Option platform, described Spot Option as “fraudulent”.
In 2010, Binaryaffiliates.com also promoted EZTrader which later became the “official Binary Options Trading Partner” for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.
EZTrader was fined $1.7m by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2016. The SEC fine was for misleading potential investors. The SEC stated at the time that fewer than 3% of US citizens investing with EZTrader made any profit on the site.
Ran Sheleg told Finance Uncovered: “For a limited period of time (the end of 2009 – 2012), I invested and was involved in an online business marketing binary options. This was at a time when no one was aware of misconduct in the industry which sadly has subsequently come to light.
“I was not aware of the misconduct nor did I have any involvement. Binary Affiliates had next to no revenue, lost money and was closed in 2013.
“At no time did my brother, Udi, have any involvement whatsoever and any attempt to link him is desperate and utterly scurrilous.”
Binary options trading was banned in Israel in early 2018, after Gabi Biton, Superintendent of the Israel Police, had made a bombshell speech about the industry to a committee of MPs in the country’s Knesset parliament the year before.
“Our eyes have been opened,” the police officer had said. “What we’re seeing here is a massive organised criminal enterprise. We are talking about criminals at various levels of crime organisations, up to the very top.
“Binary options caused Israel’s crime organisations to become significantly stronger,” he added.
In the UK, victims reported losses of £59m, with the scale of the fraud likely to be much larger.
Months after the trade was banned outright in Israel, regulators across Europe banned the sale to retail investors.
When questioned about the binary options business by Finance Uncovered, Tory co-treasurer Ehud Sheleg said he had been completely unaware of the company in which his brother had been involved.
He strongly denied any money from the binary options business had been invested in the Halcyon Gallery, an art dealership that has catapulted him into the social circles of the British Establishment.
The gallery, fuelled by an influx of international money into the London art market, has seen exceptional growth in the past decade.
Latest company accounts available on Companies House show a turnover of £88m last year, up from £38m in 2010.
The Sheleg family, through a British Virgin Islands company and a family trust, bought a 50% share in the Halcyon Gallery in 1998 when it was a Birmingham-based art dealership.
The gallery sponsors events at Buckingham Palace, and has co-hosted a party with Princess Eugenie. It also sponsors an annual charity polo match, where Princes William and Harry have played for the Halcyon Gallery team.
Another focus of Halcyon’s strategic generosity has been the Conservative Party. When Boris Johnson was London mayor, the gallery in New Bond Street hosted a drinks party for the Mayor’s charity, the Mayor’s Fund for London.
Halcyon started directly funding the Conservatives in 2010, but shortly before the 2017 general election, Ehud started donating personally – and in huge amounts. Over the past two years he has donated £1.88m to the party’s stretched coffers. His generosity was rewarded last year when Theresa May formally appointed him party co-treasurer.
Both Ran and Ehud deny that Ran has any involvement in the Halcyon’s UK business. Ran Sheleg categorically stated that he was not a business partner of Ehud. But corporate filings suggest he plays an important role in Halcyon’s affairs.
In addition to being the protector of the trust which owns the Sheleg family’s share of the Halcyon Gallery in the UK, he was appointed as a director of Halcyon Art International by Ehud Sheleg. He is also a director of Halcyon’s Shanghai company alongside his brother, and sources say he has been a frequent visitor to the gallery in London.
During the research for this article, Ehud Sheleg provided a series of background observations and comments but when asked for an on the record quote prior to publication, he instructed lawyers from Farrer & Co.
His solicitor, Julian Pike, head of reputation management at Farrer & Co, threatened Finance Uncovered with potential legal action in the event of any defamation of his client. Mr Sheleg then declined to provide a comment.
The Conservative Party did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
* Edited by Ted Jeory and Nick Mathiason