6 allegations that suggest Vote Leave may have cheated

by Hugo Dixon | 26.03.2018

New evidence suggests Vote Leave may have broken referendum spending laws by funnelling cash through a puppet operation. The official Leave campaign was only allowed to spend £7 million during the referendum on things like advertising. Vote Leave gave BeLeave £625,000 in the last days of the referendum because it was bumping up against the £7 million spending limit.

The key question is whether these two groups operated independently. If not, Vote Leave may have broken the law – and that would strengthen the already compelling case for the people to have a vote on the Brexit deal the prime minister negotiates.

Graphic showing potential overspend

The Observer, Channel 4 News and the New York Times have conducted an investigation. A whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, who played a key role in BeLeave, has gone on the record alleging cheating. A new campaigning website, Fair Vote, has meanwhile published a lot of the evidence.

Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings, the mastermind behind its campaign, and Darren Grimes, the other key figure in BeLeave apart from Sanni, deny the allegations.

InFacts has sifted through the material and boiled down the allegations to six main contentions.

BeLeave had no control over the money

BeLeave never had any say over how the money was spent, according to Sanni. None of the £625,000 went to BeLeave’s bank account. Instead, it went straight to AggregateIQ (AIQ), a Canadian data group that Vote Leave used for much of its own social media marketing during the referendum.

The whistleblower told the Observer that Vote Leave “didn’t really give us that money. They just pretended to. We had no control over it”.

Vote Leave advised BeLeave what to do

Vote Leave’s Stephen Parkinson advised BeLeave what to do even after it was supposedly independent, according to Sanni.

The whistleblower told Channel 4 News: “There was no time where anything BeLeave did didn’t go through Stephen [Parkinson]…  Any sort of article that I posted or an article that I wrote, I would run it through Stephen. I would say ‘is this OK?’… This was after we had become a separate organisation – I sent Stephen a draft of my speech, and said ‘Hey, what do you think?’ I sought advice, as did Darren [Grimes].”

Here’s an email from Sanni to Parkinson seemingly asking for advice on May 26, less than a month before the referendum. (See claim 2, slide 1)

Parkinson, who is now May’s political secretary at Downing Street, put out a statement on Cummings’ blog on Friday saying he and Sanni had dated for 18 months and that it was in this capacity that “he gave Shahmir advice and encouragement”.

Parkinson added: “I can understand if the lines became blurred for him, but I am clear that I did not direct the activities of any separate campaign groups. I had no responsibility for digital campaigning or donations during the referendum, and am confident that Vote Leave acted entirely within the law and strict spending rules at all times.”

Vote Leave had access to BeLeave’s documents

Vote Leave had access to BeLeave documents via its Google Drive, according to Sanni. Google Drive is a system where people can share documents, spreadsheets and presentations over the internet.

Evidence seemingly shows people with Vote Leave and AIQ email addresses having access to the BeLeave Google Drive (See claim 2, slides 2 and 3). The last of these slides appears to show a Vote Leave executive with access to BeLeave files on June 19, 2016, after the group had received the bulk of the £625,000 cash from Vote Leave.

BeLeave was based at Vote Leave HQ

BeLeave was based in the Vote Leave headquarters, according to Channel 4 News. This allegation is seemingly backed up by a photo allegedly showing Sanni in Vote Leave’s offices. (See claim 2, slide 5).

Vote Leave and BeLeave deleted information

After the Electoral Commission started investigating links between BeLeave and Vote Leave, the two groups deleted information, according to Sanni.

The whistleblower told the Observer that Victoria Woodcock, Vote Leave’s chief of operations, deleted the access she, Cummings and another executive had to BeLeave files on the Google drive on March 17 last year. This seems to be supported by an animation showing permissions being removed on March 17 of last year. (Claim 4 – the animation scrolls very fast so you may need to take a screenshot to see the detail).

Woodcock told the Observer: “The gist of those allegations is that I knowingly and deliberately deleted evidence which would be relevant to an investigation in an attempt to frustrate it. I believe that is untrue and completely unsupported by the evidence.” Vote Leave itself told the Observer its staff acted “ethically, responsibly and legally in deleting any data”.

Separately, Sanni told the Observer that when the letter arrived from the Electoral Commission announcing it needed to make an “assessment” Grimes “really started to panic. ‘He rang me up and told me to delete my emails. I didn’t understand it. I said: ‘We’ve done nothing wrong. Don’t worry about it.’ But he was panicking. So I just did it.’”

Vote Leave advised BeLeave what to tell press

After news of Vote Leave’s donation to BeLeave broke in August 2016 in an article in Buzzfeed, a Vote Leave director advised BeLeave what to say, according to Sanni.

The whistleblower told the Observer that Grimes was in a panic and forwarded him an email he’d got from a Vote Leave director which read: “So as discussed we think you should refuse to speak to hacks about it and just email them something like this: ‘We received donations in a standard legal way and have reported them according to the rules.’”

In the BuzzFeed article, Grimes is quoted as saying: “We received donations in a standard legal way and have reported them according to the rules.”

Other evidence

This new evidence is in addition to information showing links between Vote Leave and BeLeave that has already come to light. For example, Vote Leave campaign committee member Steve Baker, now a Brexit minister, sent a round-robin email before the campaign suggesting Vote Leave might create separate legal entities, each of which could spend up to £700,000, thus allowing them to “spend as much money as is necessary to win”.

Most of this “old” evidence is contained in this High Court document challenging the Electoral Commission’s original decision to stop investigating the Vote Leave/BeLeave connection. After this legal challenge, the Commission announced last November that it had opened an investigation to establish whether Vote Leave or Grimes had “breached campaign finance rules in relation to spending at the 2016 EU referendum”. On Saturday, it added: ““The Commission has a number of investigations open in relation to campaigners at the EU Referendum; it does not comment on live investigations.”

Meanwhile, Channel 4 News says that lawyers for Sanni and the two other whistleblowers gave the Commission a 46-page account prepared by two top QCs, and three thick ring-binders of supporting documents. InFacts has been told that this includes evidence that has not yet been revealed.

The defence

Cummings told the Observer: “The allegations about illegal donations to BeLeave are false and are part of a campaign to cancel the referendum result.” Grimes told the paper any allegations he had done anything wrong were “damaging” and “untrue”.

A Vote Leave lawyer told Channel 4 News: “Vote Leave has twice been cleared on this matter by the Electoral Commission… As has been the case throughout, Vote Leave is obligated to review – to the extent it can after this long elapsed period since the referendum – all such allegations, and is doing so. We will as appropriate share any relevant findings with the Electoral Commission, again as we have always done.”

A key plank in Cummings’ defence is his allegation in a blog that the Electoral Commission gave Vote Leave the green light to make donations to BeLeave. But in an email to Vote Leave during the referendum revealed to the High Court, the Electoral Commission only said it was fine for Vote Leave to donate money to other campaigners and not report it as part of its own spending as long as it was donated “without having a co-ordinated plan”.

Readers can make up their own minds about whether Vote Leave and BeLeave were co-ordinated operations. But, to me, the evidence seems pretty damning.

Hugo Dixon’s daughter works for Fair Vote.

Source material

  1. The Fair Vote website has much of the new evidence
  2. The Observer’s main news story
  3. The Observer’s long feature containing more information
  4. Shamir Sanni’s video interview with the Observer
  5. Channel 4 News’ main story
  6. Channel 4 News’ video
  7. The New York Times story
  8. Dominic Cummings’ blog
  9. Earlier evidence provided to High Court about links between Vote Leave and BeLeave
  10. High Court judgement on judicial review into the Electoral Commission
  11. Electoral Commission statement on opening an investigation into Vote Leave and Darren Grimes
  12. Buzzfeed story from August 2016

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    Edited by Bill Emmott

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