Ruth Dombey, the leader of Sutton Council, is facing further questions over how much she knew, and when, about the fraud case involving a charity serving local old people which led to the resignation of one of her fellow Liberal Democrat councillors.
Alan Salter last month pleaded guilty at Croydon Magistrate’s Court to defrauding £8,225 from the Carshalton Association for the Elderly by using forged cheques. The 66-year-old from Wallington is awaiting sentencing.
Sutton’s LibDems have throughout the proceedings maintained that Salter’s illegal activities were nothing to do with the council or their party. But it has now emerged that among the biggest donors to the charity being defrauded was Sutton Council itself. And it has also been shown that Salter was on the board of another Sutton charity for the elderly where the council leader’s own mother, Brenda Dombey, is a trustee.
In fact, Salter, a retired accountant, was the treasurer of both Carshalton Association for the Elderly and of Sutton Seniors’ Forum. Salter was removed as treasurer of the Seniors’ Forum only in February this year. He was replaced in that role by Brenda Dombey.
Salter resigned as a councillor for Carshalton Central in June, requiring a by-election to be held. Salter’s resignation from the council came in the same week that Ruth Dombey was awarded the OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours – her old mum must have been so proud – but Dombey’s LibDems and Sutton council officials failed to advise opposition councillors or the public of Salter’s position for several days. A case of “Mum’s the word”.
In July, the council by-election was held in the heart of the constituency of Tom Brake, the LibDems’ last London MP. Whether the LibDems would have retained the council seat had the full details of Salter’s fraud been exposed at the time seems moot.
The matter is now subject to a further inquiry by the Charity Commission, who are also being urged to investigate the financial dealings of the Sutton Seniors’ Forum, the second local charity where Salter was a trustee and treasurer.
The first, Carshalton Association for the Elderly, provides meals on wheels and other much-needed socialisation activities in the community.
According to police, between July 2015 and May 2016 – during the period he was a serving LibDem councillor – Salter signed a total of 26 Carshalton Association for the Elderly cheques made out to himself or allowing him to withdraw cash, and forged the signatures of the two other charity officers who were needed to co-sign the transactions.
According to reports, the fraud was “uncovered when one of the charity’s senior officers noticed the withdrawals when preparing its annual accounts in June”. The identity of the charity officer who made that discovery has not been reported.
Carshalton Association for the Elderly has not filed its full accounts with the Charity Commission since 2013.
Records show that Carshalton Association for the Elderly had an income of £23,600 in the year to March 2015 and spent £18,600. Sutton Council gave the charity grant funding of £24,700 for the year to March 2013, the most recently available accounts. The council had provided grants of more than £48,000 in each of the preceding two years.
Salter was appointed to the charity’s board in a personal capacity, a spokesman for Sutton Council has claimed. The council said it had conducted an internal audit investigation and had so far found no evidence that Salter had siphoned off any council funds. Not that Salter needed to, since he was accessing council funds one-place removed, via the council-funded charity.
Ruth Dombey was not available to answer questions immediately after Salter’s guilty verdict.
Instead, Sutton LibDems put up their deputy leader, Simon Wales, to provide the suitably condemnatory comment: “Councillors must behave in a manner beyond reproach. We are extremely disappointed in his actions. Defrauding a charity that serves some of the most vulnerable people in our community of thousands of pounds is inexcusable, reprehensible and shameful.”
Sutton LibDems’ conduct with charity funding has also been seen as being “reprehensible and shameful” in other ways, too:
- There was the £275,000 “grant” to a Wallington church used by the LibDems for political meetings, the grant made by Viridor’s charity arm just before the incinerator operators were due to seek planning permission for their industrial scale rubbish burner at Beddington Lane.
- Then there was the £1 million “discount” on the value of the council-owned property, The Lodge, leased to EcoLocal, an environmental charity of which Tom Brake is a trustee. The decision was taken by a panel of councillors, including two sometime employees of Brake who somehow forgot to declare this interest.
- And then there was the cover-up of the thousands of pounds of public donations made to the LibDem Mayor of Sutton’s charity – involving a charity never actually existed.
The LibDem-dominated council continues to attempt to distance itself from fraudster Salter and his “personal” charity work. But he was only made a trustee of the charities after he was established as a councillor, and this was done on the recommendation of at least one other Sutton LibDem. That Salter was the LibDems’ chosen chairman of the council’s influential scrutiny committee until only shortly before his fraud was uncovered is at least a reflection of their sorry judgement.
And while there is no suggestion that either Ruth Dombey nor her mother were engaged in any of Salter’s criminal activities, there are legitimate questions to be asked about how or when they discovered the wrong-doing.
The LibDems’ role with Sutton Seniors’ Forum, the other local charity in which Salter was trustee and treasurer, appears to be a lot closer than simply “arm’s length”.
Sutton Seniors’ Forum describes itself as a “non-party political group”, yet of its eight trustees, three are closely associated with the council’s ruling LibDems: Salter, plus Ruth Dombey’s mum Brenda, and Chris Pennington, a former LibDem councillor. Pennington is also a trustee of the defrauded Carshalton Association for the Elderly.
And it was Pennington who is understood to have recommended Salter as a trustee and treasurer for Sutton Seniors’ Forum.
In June 2014, Ruth Dombey personally endorsed the selection as the Mayor of Sutton of Arthur Hookway. Hookway had been a councillor for less than one month.
One of Councillor Hookway’s first decisions as mayor was to choose his nominated charities for the coming year.
Ruth Dombey-backed Hookway picked that “non-party political group” Sutton Seniors’ Forum, where Brenda Dombey is a trustee, as one of his charities.
The following May, at the end of his Mayoral year, Hookway handed over £6,250 of public donations into the safe-keeping of the treasurer of Sutton Seniors’ Forum… Alan Salter.
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