Sunday, February 25, 2007

Un-wise affairs

It is a long while since we revisited the case of Tom Wise the UKIP MEP (pictured in the EU parliament chamber in Brussels with his friends), who was associated in 2005 with rather unsavoury financial irregularities amounting, effectively, to fraud.

Today, however, he is back in the news, this time in The Sunday Times, in a front-page story written by Daniel Foggo, headed: "UKIP in embezzlement scandal".

Much of the detail is similar to the original investigation into Wise's affairs in 2005, also by Foggo, then working for The Sunday Telegraph. At the time, this revealed that Wise had charged to his EU expenses £36,000 for the services of a research assistant, but had only paid her £6,000. A follow-up article weeks later, claimed that Wise was to pay back a refund of £21,000.

From Foggo now we learn that Wise is officially under investigation by the EU's anti-fraud office, OLAF and that the sum he originally channelled into his own bank account was nearer £40,000

Potentially, writes Foggo, this is the most serious crisis to hit UKIP, more so coming after the action by the Electoral Commission. While that episode is being dismissed as a "clerical error", Wise's actions have the hallmarks of deliberate fraud.

What has been clearly established is that Wise set up a scam to circumvent EU rules preventing MEPs claiming their £125,000 annual staff expenses personally, by requiring them to be paid either directly to the employees or through a third-party "agent". MEPs are not allowed to handle the money themselves.

Wise, who before his election had been a paying agent for his then boss, Geoffrey Titford MEP - and therefore had been very familiar with the rules - pretended that his own bank account was actually that of his researcher, Lindsay Jenkins - who claims on her own website to be an "investigative author and journalist". From November 2004 until October 2005 he funnelled £39,100 of taxpayers' money into his own account with the Cooperative Bank from which he paid Jenkins just £13,555.

Bank statements obtained by Foggo show that the only money coming into the account was from the EU, ostensibly for Jenkins. Wise's method was simple. He supplied the EU payments office with a contract, obtained by The Sunday Times, which included Jenkins's name and details and stipulated that she apparently wanted her money to be paid into her account, entitled "Stags". In fact, this account, the full name of which was "T Wise trading as Stags", was a business account run by the MEP himself.

But the breach of rules did not stop there. Some of the £13,555 paid to her was actually for work done on behalf of other party members, including UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who had agreed to fund the publication of a book written by Jenkins.

Then, during the same timespan, more than £19,000 of the money was steadily paid out from Wise's account to other destinations, some of them apparently credit cards. One disbursement alone, made via a transfer to somebody other than Jenkins, was for £6,500. And it has now been established that Wise also applied for other assistants' salaries to be paid through his bank account before the period involving Jenkins.

Faced with the highly embarrassing situation of one of their own implicated in fraud, back in 2005, the UK Independence Party – which makes a big noise about exposing EU fraud – was given plenty of opportunities to expose the fraudster in its midst, and distance itself from him. Collectively though, the MEPs and senior party officials – with not a little rancour – chose to close ranks, effectively endorsing (or at least, condoning) Wise's action.

Now their neglect is rebounding on them, as Wise is shown to be a serial embezzler, having maintained his position in the Party only through the tolerance of his dishonesty by his colleagues. Collectively, therefore, they are tarnished by his actions, and the name of the Party (such that it is) has been diminished.

However, if this is the case against Wise – with more to follow – Foggo may be wrong if he believes this to be, potentially, the most serious crisis to hit UKIP. Additionally, he reports that the Electoral Commission is going to launch a full review of UKIP's internal systems for dealing with their financial affairs and handling their statutory reporting requirements, noting that UKIP systematically flouts the spirit of EU rules, which forbid party workers from being paid with taxpayers' money. This is the line taken by the Sunday Telegraph in its story, as well as Foggo, both pursuing the story that the Party has been paying its regional organisers by designating them "advisers" and "assistants" to its 10 MEPs. By using this ploy, salaries of up to £40,000 a year have been paid from the MEPs' EU expenses, relying on the further fiction that they do their actual jobs "in their spare time".

Further details are set to be exposed because Denis Brookes, one of the party's former officials, issued industrial tribunal proceedings against Mike Nattrass, the party's MEP for the West Midlands region (pictured). It is understood that Brookes has stated in his claim for unfair dismissal that he was being paid to do one job while actually employed to do another one entirely, so that the party could secure EU funding for him.

If this is established, the party could find itself having to dismantle its entire Party structure and, as damaging, repaying the salaries of the regional organisers, going right back to 1999, when three UKIP MEP were first elected. It was then that the system was first devised of using MEP's personal expenses illegally to pay Party workers, in the expectation that Brussels-based officials would never check on the activities of staff based in the UK.

Given a clear intent to defraud taxpayers funds for Party purposes, carried out by all UKIP's MEPs, not only will they face the prospect of returning millions of pounds, but the possibility of criminal prosecutions as well.

Ironically, the latest local publicity from Wise has been devoted to opposing a new passport office in Luton because he says it would lead to "data rape". Now, it transpires that he and his colleagues have been doing something similar to the taxpayers. "Gang rape" might be a better way of putting it. What's left of the Party they have systematically sought to destroy might certainly agree.

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