An investigation by the Charity Commission has found that Sutton Liberal Democrats may have been involved in preventing a prompt report to the police of serious concerns about the financial affairs of a local charity for the elderly. The Commission’s findings have led to calls for Ruth Dombey, the LibDem leader of Sutton Council, to resign immediately.
Alan Salter is Dombey’s former LibDem councillor colleague on Sutton Council who until earlier this year was also the treasurer and a trustee of two charity groups in the borough.
In a letter seen by Inside Croydon, the Charity Commission has found that there were “failures in the governance and financial management” at a related group, Sutton Seniors’ Forum, where Salter was also treasurer until he was replaced in that key role earlier this year by Brenda Dombey – Ruth Dombey’s own mother.
While Brenda Dombey assumed that role in February, it was not until three months later that the police began investigating theft and fraud allegations against Salter.
In a statement to the council in September, Ruth Dombey said, “I became aware of rumours regarding Mr Salter’s behaviour over Spring Bank Holiday weekend May 29-30.” The implication of this is that her own mother, Brenda Dombey, as treasurer of Sutton Seniors’ Forum, had not taken any action over any concerns about that charity’s accounts for at least three months.
There was considerable public money from the council at risk as well as the reputation of the charities. Sutton Seniors’ Forum receives thousands of pounds each year in grants from Sutton Council – including in the past 12-month period, £6,000 from the Sutton Community Fund, which is administered by Ruth Dombey’s deputy leader, Simon Wales, and £6,250 from the Mayor of Sutton’s charity.
The Charity Commission’s investigation findings have prompted opposition councillors in Sutton to accuse the LibDems of conducting a cover-up.
“I think Ruth Dombey has to resign now. I cannot accept that she was unaware of what was happening at Sutton Seniors’ Forum,” Nick Mattey, the anti-incinerator independent councillor for Beddington North, told Inside Croydon.
“There was a cover-up at the charity to protect the LibDems. They were only interested in preventing any scandal and avoiding a by-election if a councillor was forced to resign. The charity’s trustees appeared too concerned with making sure Ruth Dombey got her OBE,”
There has been speculation among Sutton councillors that there may have been some connections between the thefts from the Carshalton Association for the Elderly and the management of the Sutton Seniors’ Forum’s finances when Salter had control over both charity accounts.
The Charity Commission said that a loan for £3,683 reported in the Sutton Seniors’ Forum accounts for financial year to the end of December 2015 was within the charity’s objects “and that doing so is within the range of reasonable decisions that trustees can take”.
In a letter yesterday, a caseworker on the Charity Commission’s compliance team, answered an enquiry about Sutton Seniors’ Forum by writing, “We identified that there have been some failures in the governance and financial management of the charity by the trustees.
“In addition the charity also failed to report a serious incident to the Commission or to make a report to the police when they first identified concerns.
“We identified that there is a connected party relationship between the charity and the local Liberal Democrat Party in Sutton Council. While there is no direct evidence of a conflict of interest or loyalty there may be a suggestion that external influences played a part in the decisions that the trustees took in response to the serious incident at the charity.
“If the connected party relationship played any part in the decision-making at the charity it may be that the trustees also risked the reputation of the charity.
“We established that the charity has procedures in place for managing financial controls, however, it does not appear that the charity has any written financial controls policies and procedures in place.”
The Charity Commission said that it has “given clear regulatory advice to the trustees of Sutton Seniors Forum about serious incident reporting, internal financial controls, trustee decision-making and conflict of interests and loyalties”. Any “loss of funds” will have to be included in the charities funds when it files its next set of annual accounts.
“The trustees will be required to make appropriate adjustments if there are unexplained gaps in the charity’s finances and the trustees must report the loss in the accounts and set out the reasons for this is in the ‘Trustees Annual Report’,” the Charity Commission stated.
The Commission also said that it has “tasked the trustee[s] with a number of actions including to consider the process of seeking recovery of any financial losses”.
Tim Crowley, the leader of the opposition Conservative group on Sutton Council, told Inside Croydon: “The Charity Commission findings speak for themselves.
“It leaves a huge question mark over what the administration really did know about when Alan Salter had taken the money. There are still many unanswered questions that Councillor Dombey needs to address, the most pressing one being that of whether May 29 really was the first time she was made aware of possible financial discrepancies at Sutton Seniors’ Forum caused by the theft of money from the charity.
“It could have saved Carshalton Association for the Elderly from the same fate.”
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