Wendygate – Electoral Commission Reveals ‘Illegal Donation’ Name was Altered.

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The Electoral Commission has sensationally revealed that the source of the illegal donation that led to the resignation of Wendy Alexander as leader of Scottish Labour in 2007 was altered on official campaign documents prior to submission.

In a document released this week the Commission reveal that their 2007 investigation was told that someone from Wendy Alexander’s Labour leadership campaign team had altered the donor name from Jersey businessman Mr Paul Green, to that of Combined Property Services Limited, which would have rendered the donation legal.

The revelation appears to contradict the only information previously made available, a public statement made in November 2007 by Charles Gordon MSP, in which he claimed that he had told the campaign team at the outset that the Green donation had come from the Glasgow company as a result of a ‘mistake’ on his part.

The Electoral Commission was ordered to release the information after a High Court Appeal decision on 4th November this year. The appeal decision was the culmination of a three year Freedom of Information fight by a member of the public, Mr David Ferguson.

The Commission also revealed that the explanation given by members of the campaign team for the falsification of the source was confusion over what were pledges and what were actual donations. However the Commission refused to publish the identity of the person who altered the document or publish the actual statements given by each of the campaign team when the investigation was being carried out.

In this new document(1) the Commission states that six people, four of them Labour MSPs, were questioned about the circumstances surrounding the recording of the donation and who recorded it as coming from Combined Property Services Ltd (CPS).

In the document the Commission states:

“We interviewed several members of Wendy Alexander’s campaign. In total we interviewed 6 persons associated with the Wendy Alexander campaign – Lorraine McFarlane (Wendy Alexander’s personal assistant), Tom McCabe (Wendy Alexander’s campaign manager), Jim Metcalfe (Wendy Alexander’s campaign co-ordinator), David Whitton (Wendy Alexander’s media advisor), Charlie Gordon and Wendy Alexander.

As is often the case in investigations, the various witnesses had different levels of involvement and knowledge of what transpired. Each witness was questioned about the circumstances surrounding the recording of the donation, consistent with their involvement in the matter. Each witness provided some evidence as to who recorded the donation and why the source of the donation was recorded as CPS.

It appears that a list of those who had pledged donations initially was compiled by the campaign manager. A version of the list was then annotated by Ms Alexander’s personal assistant as a means of tracking who should be sent thank you letters, not for any submission to the Commission. There appeared to have been confusion amongst the campaign team as to whether donations on the list had been received or were merely pledges, and what steps had been taken, by whom, to confirm receipt of donations.

Ultimately a member of the team amended the donor name on the spreadsheet from Paul Green to CPS limited, apparently in the belief that it was a pledge rather than a donation already received.”

The new revelations as to the reasons why the source of the illegal donation was effectively falsified will re-ignite the controversy into the events surrounding Wendy Alexander’s resignation.

Ms Alexander resigned as leader of Holyrood’s Labour group in 2007 after someone apparently within her own circle leaked information to a Scottish journalist. It revealed that an illegal donation had been made to her leadership campaign fund and the resultant scandal brought Wendy Alexander’s short tenure as leader of Holyrood Labour to an end. Ms Alexander subsequently claimed that her downfall was due to a process of “SNP inspired complaints”. (2)

The donation had come from Jersey based businessman Paul Green who had given £950 towards Ms Alexander’s campaign after being contacted by ex leader of Glasgow Council and Labour MSP Charlie Gordon. The donation was illegal as Mr Green was not resident in the UK and did not appear on the electoral role.

When the story broke Charlie Gordon confirmed that he had indeed approached Mr Green about a donation and had received £950 which he then passed to the campaign team explaining clearly that it was a donation.

Mr Gordon said:
“I asked for a donation from Mr Green, and he asked me to ensure that it was in line with the rules. I handed the donation on to the campaign team and conveyed to them that it was a donation under the auspices of Combined Property Services and that Mr Green had a controlling interest in the company…Unfortunately I was wrong in both these assumptions.” (3)

Mr Gordon’s version appeared to be contradicted by Mr Green who described the events leading up to the donation saying:

“In August of this year I was asked by Mr Gordon to donate £950 to Wendy Alexander’s campaign to become leader of the Scottish Labour Party. I asked Mr Gordon if this complied with the Electoral Commission Rules and was told that it did. Relying on that confirmation I made the donation from my personal account

“… Combined Property Services Limited is a completely independent company. Combined Property Services Limited would have no reason to be aware of this small donation which was made by me personally, openly and in good faith…” (4)

Why Charlie Gordon assumed an independent business based in Glasgow was controlled by a Jersey businessman and why he thought it was a party to this donation has never been fully explained.

However an arguably more serious matter then emerged when it became known that documents handed to the Electoral Commission by the campaign team had recorded as the source of the £950 not Paul Green but rather a completely independent company, the same Combined Property Services Limited.

After a lengthy investigation the Electoral Commission decided not to forward a report to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (5). The investigation was branded a whitewash by critics who claimed that the decision had created a black hole in electoral law.

The matter would have ended there but for Mr Ferguson’s Freedom of Information request which asked, amongst other things, that the Electoral Commission publish the statements given by each of the campaign team as part of the investigation – the Commission’s decision to withhold that information was upheld and the case went to appeal.

The release of this new information will lead to even more questions being asked over why the Electoral Commission decided not to involve the Crown Prosecution services.

Mr Ferguson described the explanation of why Mr Green’s name was replaced with that of CPS as a “concoction”.

Speaking to Newsnet Scotland Mr Ferguson said of the document released by the Commission: “It contains what purports to be an explanation for how the illegal donation from Paul Green in Jersey came to be misattributed to a company called Combined Property Services in Glasgow.

“This concoction does beg one rather obvious question; why on earth should confusion about whether a donation was in fact a donation or merely a pledge lead to the substitution of one name for another?

“Did the Electoral Commission ever bother to ask anybody that question?”

Mr Ferguson also questioned the credibility of the ‘pledge’ explanation when placed alongside Charlie Gordon’s statement that he handed over the £950 and clearly pointed out that it was a donation.

Mr Ferguson said: “Bear in mind that the Commission granted Alexander an amnesty for the s.56 offence (receiving an illegal donation) specifically because of the “significant efforts” she had made to validate the source of the donation.

“That becomes a bit hard to reconcile with this new story of all the ‘administrative confusion’ about pledges that resulted in the donation being reported as having come from a completely unrelated source.”

Mr Ferguson explained that he had the right to request an appeal against the part of the 4th November hearing that upheld the decision of the Commission to withhold the statements given to it by the campaign team and the identity of the person who changed the donor name.

He added:
“I won half the case, and I lost half the case. I have a right to an appeal to the Upper Tribunal, for which my papers had to be submitted by 2nd December.

“They were duly submitted on that day, which is probably just as well.”

Related stories:
http://newsnetscotland.com/general/918-shock-claims-of-labour-orchestrated-smear

http://newsnetscotland.com/politics/928-labour-and-the-smear-gone-wrong

http://newsnetscotland.com/politics/420-electoral-commission-was-criticised-over-wendygate

Notes:
1. Electoral Commission Document

2. Wendy Alexander resignation speech
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7478994.stm

3. Charlie Gordon statement
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/7119230.stm

4. Paul Green statement
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/7119698.stm

5. 7th Feb 2008 Electoral Commission Decision
http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/news-and-media/news-releases/electoral-commission-media-centre/news-releases-donations/statement-by-the-electoral-commission

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