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Given the heat and potential significance of the sale of Poplar Town Hall, it was a bit surprising to see just one member of the press at the specially convened Overview and Scrutiny committee meeting in Mulberry Place last Tuesday: me.

And yes, I got a seat.

And I also won a minor battle with the council’s communications department, who had initially told me I wasn’t allowed to film the proceedings. The committee’s chair, Cllr Josh Peck, agreed to my request, although because at least one (anonymous) senior officer objected, filming the officers’ contributions, including that of development director Aman Dalvi, was banned. A battle for another day.

I apologise in advance for my iPhone camerawork (you try holding one steady for an hour), and the discussion is just about audible with the sound turned up. I’ve had to compress the quality so it can go on YouTube.

I’ll introduce the characters in a bit, but first a bit of background.

You’ll remember that Poplar Town Hall on Woodstock Terrace, E14, was sold in November 2011 to Dreamstar Ltd, a company reported by the Telegraph to be part-owned by Mujib Islam. Mr Islam, the chief executive of Medialink, is the registered owner of Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s campaign website, lutfurmayor.com, and has admitted helping Lutfur to become mayor in 2010.

Dreamstar bought Grade II listed Poplar Town Hall after a rather unusual purchase process for £875,000. Within weeks Mujib applied for a change of use on the building from B1 (community/educational) to C1, which meant it could become a “boutique hotel”. It is thought this change of use, which he finally secured in 2013 (under planning officers’ delegated powers–no committee needed apparently), means the property is now worth millions.

Understandably, there have been allegations of cronyism, and worse.

Tory leader Peter Golds demanded an investigation in January 2014. Among the matters he asked for in the motion passed by full council was a valuation report to show what the building was worth in 2011, and what it would have been worth if it had been marketed as a hotel.

It is that last aspect which is troubling people.

Auditors from the Mazars accountancy firm produced a final report this month. Actually, unknown to opposition councillors, they did produce an interim report in February but somehow the council executive managed to kick that stick of dynamite to this side of the mayoral election. Funny that.

I wrote in detail about the Mazars report earlier this month, here. To say it raised a number of serious questions is an understatement. They found that key records on the bid process had either gone missing or didn’t exist at all; that a council lawyer predicted it would end in litigation; and that Dreamstar’s final bid was not only late (and therefore should not have been accepted, but also it was not even the highest. They also found evidence to suggest the mayor himself was involving himself in the actual sale process, which would be highly unusual. And much more.

The report was damning.

But when two of their senior managers appeared at the committee on Tuesday they provided what Lutfur will regard as a killer line to those accusing him or his administration of fraud.

They said:

“If we thought there’d been any dishonesty, we’d have reported to this to the police or external auditors. There’s a big difference between a few missing records and dishonesty.”

I apologise to Lutfur because as I was taking notes at that stage, I wasn’t actually holding the camera. So he’ll never be able to watch that moment.

However, I suspect more than a couple of the committee members weren’t convinced. And it was clear on Tuesday night that even non-political/lay members of the committee (who were actually the stars of the show) thought there had been at least some negligence, perhaps wilful

So here’s some more relevant background. Poplar Town Hall was first mooted for sale in March 2008 under Denise Jones’s leadership of the council. At a cabinet meeting in March 2008, one of the proposed options for sale and marketing was a small scale hotel.

However, nothing further happened until January 2011, three months into Lutfur’s mayoralty. In the intervening three years, the property was used as a temporary venue for the Ian Mikardo School. That use was coming to an end and Lutfur’s cabinet member for finance and resources, Alibor Choudhury, was concerned about the costs of securing a potentially empty building.

So in January 2011, Lutfur’s cabinet discussed the latest situation. Officers produced a report (as an update to that March 2008 decision) saying they estimated the value of the building at £1.5million. Officers were told to proceed for a quick sale.

Officers asked bankers from BNP Paribas to carry out a marketing exercise. Paribas valued the site at £750k-£950k. The offers that finally came in from bidders in June 2011 fell mostly within that range, although Mazars noted one officer remarking the narrow range of the bids looked “odd”.

Mazars also noted that none of the bidders, including Dreamstar or its shareholders, declared any interests with respect to the administration’s officers or elected representatives.

At Tuesday’s hearing, we were not, sadly, graced by the mayor’s presence. In fact, Josh told the committee he was still awaiting answers to a series of emailed questions.

Meic Sullivan-Gould, the interim monitoring officer, showed up and declared everything was fine. But he still got his knuckles rapped when he admitted he and other officers had “forgotten” to carry out the work demanded by Peter Golds’ January 2014 council motion. He said he and other senior officers had “overlooked” it, that they’d been unable to determine whose responsibility it was.

Sullivan-Gould also said the council would be able to claim a slice of the windfall profits Dreamstar will make from converting the building to a hotel, although no negotiations on that have yet taken place.

Aman Dalvi, the development director, also showed up and seemed to feel the pressure under some pretty intense questioning.

But the strangest exchanges came when Alibor Choudhury took centre stage. He does have an unfortunately bizarre manner when he’s performing in public, as this memorable “black cardigans” exchange showed earlier this year.

He may regard the committee’s motives on this subject as purely political, but he really should maintain the moral high ground and treat the body with a little more respect. Perhaps he’s copying his boss’s attitude.

His performance oozed contempt for almost every single person questioning him, so much so that he must have misheard or misunderstood the questions; otherwise, he seems to have told outright lies.

Several times he was asked if he knew any of the people who’d submitted bids for Poplar Town Hall. And repeatedly, he said No. “Absolutely, categorically not,” was his first answer. He then tried to explain he was unable to answer fully because Josh hadn’t put an actual name to him. Bafflingly, Josh was banned by the committee’s lawyer, David Galpin, from mentioning Mujib Islam by name, even though it’s a fact he was at least a director of Dreamstar, it’s a fact that Dreamstar owns Poplar Town Hall, it’s a fact he was named in the Sunday Telegraph, and all this is documented at Companies House and via other open sources.

Mr Galpin said he could only be named in a closed session of the committee, from which the press and public are banned.

And because we were banned from seeing those further exchanges, all we have to go on at the moment is Alibor denying in general terms that he knew Mujib, a man I thought he’d at times worked closely with in the 2010 election campaign.

Oh well, I’m sure that will come out in the wash..

Whether the committee will conclude there was any dishonesty or abuse of process is yet to be seen, but I think they’ll have an easier job saying value for money was not obtained on this historic property.

The two stars of last Tuesday night’s hearing were probably the two lay members: Nozrul Mustufa and the Rev James Olanipekun. They’re both parent governors in the borough. And they both asked the best questions of the night.

Nozrul was visibly incredulous and angry that neither the mayor nor any of his cabinet bothered to ask the obvious question at the outset of the sale; namely, what could the property have fetched if it was sold as a possibly hotel. He pointed out that this was in 2011, a year before the Olympics and when “hotels were popping up all over the place” in Tower Hamlets.

Nozrul said this is what we elect councillors and mayors to do: to ask these questions.

Alibor at first tried to argue his way out of that hole but then realised he couldn’t. So he blamed BNP Paribas. How responsible.

The full exchange lasts for 32 minutes; I think the best bits start just after 16 minutes with Josh and Alibor’s argument. However, the anoraks will want to view the whole lot.

I’ve also transcribed the exchanges from about 16 minutes onwards below. It all helps to give a full record.

As for the people you’ll see…by this point the two Mazars accountants had left, so their seats are empty; Meic is just to the left of the frame and he comes into shot towards the end. Straight ahead is Josh Peck, with David Galpin on Josh’s left. On Josh’s right are two other officers, the three Tower Hamlets First councillors, Maium Miah, Abjol Miah and Suluk Ahmed.

On the right as you look, you see the opposition councillors: Labour’s John Pierce, Denise Jones and Asma Begum; then Tory Cllr Craig Aston, the Rev James and Nozrul.

Alibor is right in front of the camera, with his back to us.

Here’s the video:


And here’s the selected transcript:

Josh Peck: Did you know any of the people who submitted bids for Poplar Town Hall?

Alibor Choudhury: Absolutely, categorically not.

JP: really?

AC: …give me an assertion.

JP: You don’t know any of the people who submitted bids for poplar town hall?

AC: Test me, throw me a name. I’ve told you no.

JP: I’m not going to bandy names around.

AC: That’s ok, I’ve told you no.

JP: Your evidence to us is that you knew no one who submitted bids for poplar town hall.

AC: Back in 2010, 2011..when the bids were being marketed and when the bids had come in, I did not have a clue

JP: That’s not the question I asked you.

AC: You were asking about the people and I’ve told you already, I didn’t know any of the people.

JP: You don’t know anyone who submitted…?

AC: Well name me a name, give me a name, it might jog my memory

JP: There’s a clear allegation in the media that someone pretty closely associated to the mayor [and..] his campaign ended up purchasing the Poplar Town Hall.

AC: You can’t use the media; in the media, they say that you cost the council £26,000 recently for rejecting Lovebox’s licence, which they got overturned in court. £26,000 of our money, taxpayers’ money. Now, if we go by the media, there’s a lot of things I can say to you, and you can say, so please be factual and stick to council records.

JP: I’m asking you a question; there’s an allegation in the media that names an individual and I’m not going to name that individual in open session..

AC: You have to, you have to; otherwise I can’t answer the question. Cllr Peck, it’s like sending me to a dark room and you know..

JP: Ok, we’ll go into closed session after this and we’ll go through some names.

AC: We don’t need to…this is public…Ted has every right to know. I think you should give us the name then test me. So I can then answer properly can’t I.

JP [turns to head of legal services David Galpin]: Mr Galpin, are you happy for us to name individual names?

David Galpin: I am concerned about it in open session, only because it concerns personal data from a third party; I don’t know who that third party is, so for that reason I’d be concerned about it.

AC: He’s concerned but it’s not illegal and I think journalists here have a right to know who this individual is. You don’t know how I will answer; it might be music to your ears, Cllr Peck. We don’t know.

JP: I’m asking you a general question about whether you knew, whether you know any of the people involved in the bids for Poplar Town Hall. You’ve said ‘no’ repeatedly, so that’s fine.. .

AC: Yeah.

JP: So we can take that answer from you.

AC: But you seem to know otherwise, you seem to be probing me thinking you might get a different response if you chuck a name at me, so why don’t you chuck a name at me.

JP: Given what I’ve read in the papers recently and given what I know, I am surprised..so we’ll leave it at that.

AC: What kind of interrogation is that?

JP: Do you know if the Mayor knew anyone who submitted bids for Poplar Town Hall?

AC: Give me a name and I’ll tell you..

JP: Did the Mayor know any of the people involved..?

AC: As far as I’m aware….No.

JP: As far as you’re aware, the Mayor knew no one who bid for Poplar Town Hall?

AC: Unless you give me a name, Cllr Peck, it’s very difficult for me to answer that question.

JP: We’ll go into closed session later. Did you declare any interest in the process?

AC: I wasn’t involved in the process apart from the decision-making part in cabinet

JP: Did the Mayor declare any interest in the process?

AC: I’m sure he would have if he’d had an interest….We’ll have to check our records

JP: Are you happy that a public building sold for £875,000 could now become a boutique hotel worth millions of pounds?

AC: I’m not sure I’ve got an opinion on that really.

JP: Any other questions?

Nozrul Mostafa: You’ve made reference that the £1.5million was an..estimate….at some point the value from BNP Paribas..was up to £950,000. When that was eventually founded (?), was there no question asked why the value was so low?…I know the officers made that decision; at some point cabinet, even the Mayor, I can’t believe the cabinet didn’t know that this building was going to be sold for X amount of pounds.. below even if it was an estimate and not a valuation..Ok, what is the reason why it was so much off the mark…even if the answer was that that was an estimate up in the air. Was that question ever asked: why are we selling it so cheap compared to the estimate? No one, not even the mayor or cabinet even raised it?

AC: It did come back to cabinet. We had the update report in January saying…that we needed to progress and officers would do that, and officers would report to the mayor at some point in time

NM: And in January, that valuation from Paribas would have been there?

AC: With all due respect, I think I’ve answered this already. We were satisfied that the decision made by officers on the basis they made those decisions, that decision was good enough for us. We were satisfied; therefore we did not question it.

Rev James Olanipekun: How closely does Resource and Development work together, given the fact they should be working in tandem?

AC: There is a relationship, Reverend. Resources and asset management work very closely together especially when it comes to disposals because disposals yield money and money comes into our coffers, which then forms our budget or the financial activity of the council..so there is clearly a hand in glove relationship.

JO: Given your submission, isn’t there the necessity to ensure true value for money?

AC: There has to be a degree of trust; these are our officers, they are experts in their profession; we rely on their advice and guidance. We have our political knowledge; we have the grassroots intelligence that we bring to the table. But ultimately, it’s about working together with these officers about coming to an understanding. And I believe we got there. Our job is to challenge officers as well, don’t get me wrong, we’re elected to advocate and represent our communities and challenge officers when the need arises but I felt it was robust enough and it got us where we needed to be. Otherwise the building could be empty still now, bleeding us hundreds of thousands.

NM: That’s the reason why I was asking. As an elected member, I find it quite disheartening that any councillor wouldn’t challenge their officers with reference to the price that they were selling it or marketing it for. This £1.5m was an estimate, but it was out there. That’s what the cabinet decision was based on to sell it. Now when it came, as the Cabinet lead member for resources, it was £1.5million and there’s a discrepancy there..why were no questions asked?

AC: There’s a simple answer to that.

NM: But was the question asked?

AC: There was a guestimate of £1.5million; at the time, the market determined we weren’t going to get that, you’ve got your eight hundred or whatever it was thousand pounds. That wasn’t because officers didn’t try, or the process was flawed, or anything else. Everything was there to ensure we would get the maximum. Clearly we didn’t achieve the £1.5m guestimate..

NM: Was the question asked? You keep saying guestimate? Was the question asked: it was at cabinet for £1.5million; I could understand if the answer came back that that was a guestimate, and that’s the answer, that’s fair enough..

AC: Let me put it another way…

NM: You keep saying the question wasn’t asked and you didn’t know.

AC: ..Say wed said this wasn’t enough and put it on the market again, and re-market it and revalue it, it doesn’t really help our situation does it? Given that officers clearly demonstrated they’d tried to get us the maximum value for that property, and the circumstances were what we foudn ourselves in at the time, we felt that would suffice. You keep asking me about questions, we could question…

NM: With all due respect, with 2012 coming up..in 2008, we had this policy of this being a hotel. This was marketed as an educational as a B1 use, which wasn’t a hotel use. I can’t believe there wasn’t anyone who asked for a valuation if this is being changed to a hotel, what would the valuation would be? I’m not sure if Paribas did that…

AC: ..that was after the fact though..

NM: ..they valued it at £850-£950k ..

AC:…that’s ‘as is’ though..

NM:…yes, as is…with a B1 use. With the Olympics around the corner, that we were having, did no one ask whether there was an element of this from 2008 when it was marketed as a hotel bid, what would the cost be as a hotel use?

AC: Fist of all, I’m not sure whether officers pre-empted it would be a boutique hotel at that time. It was marketed as a former town hall that had a range of uses, for education and community as one, and given that they followed their noses when it came to getting that valuation. If they’d have pre-empted it was going to be a hotel then who knows? But correct me if I’m wrong, the hotel proposal came after the sale.

NM: I’m saying with the various criteria that were there, I’m trying to understand why weren’t different scenarios put out there. If this happens at C1 use, if this has a B1 use, if this has a D1 use, these are the price valuations we get can get for this town hall. I know the planning application came in afterwards and it was agreed by whoever made that decision…My point is when Paribas gave the valuation why was it just valued at a B1 use and educational use? Why weren’t whatever permuations there could be, this is what it should be marketed as?

AC: We used highly skilled professionals to give us the best value for that property and to do whatever necessary to achieve that. Clearly, if you’ve found a weakness in that, we should take that to BNP Parnabus, Barnabus, Paribas, or whatever they’re called. I can’t sit here and preempt the future and assume things. We had to work with what we had; we had to work with an asset as is. And our job is to make that asset didn’t become a burden or a liability for the council. And that’s my job.

NM: Well, personally, we vote for councillors and cabinet members to ask these questions of their officers, so ultimately..it’s up to you to ask these questions and like I say, the bottom line is…it’s relevant it went to a hotel use afterwards, there was a hotel element when it first went to cabinet for disposal in 2008. I can’t understand why – given there were hotels popping up all over the place, in Commercial Road, on Cambridge Heath Road, Holiday Inns, hotels were coming everywhere–that we didn’t have an element where Paribas..well, I’m just going over it again.

AC: I think you’ve got a valid point. It’s a learning curve. Next time, we might not use BNP Barnabus, Paribas, because if they’re that useless and made oversights of that nature, maybe a recommendation that comes from this is that we strike them off and not use them again.

JP: One of the questions we asked of BNP Paribas is whether they’d been passed a planning brief that included a possible hotel use and they didn’t think they had.

AC: I can’t answer that, I’m not aware of that at all.

 

 

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When I was sent this yesterday I thought it must be a fake or a joke. It’s certainly not the latter.

It’s the latest attempt at comedy from Tower Hamlets council’s in-house joker, the Interim Monitoring Officer Meic Sullivan-Gould.

He likes Facebook, does our Meic, and he seems a happy-go-lucky sort of guy. And at least he has good taste in international rugby teams (Wales).

But I’m not sure how well his latest offerings on social media (during the Panorama programme in March, he attacked the Mayor’s critics) will go down with the hard-pressed taxpayers of Tower Hamlets. Or his colleagues, or Mayor Lutfur Rahman and his team, come to think of it.

Screen shot 2014-07-24 at 12.27.47I’m not sure what rate he’s being paid as a contractor at Tower Hamlets council but his predecessor, Isabella Freeman, took a salary of £121,000. I suspect Meic would consider himself worth far more than that.

He’s lucky to be in a position where he can afford a new car, even if it is a crappy BMW Z4 (08 reg, worth about £10k). The vast majority of people who pay his wages (or, according to Meic, who paid for his car) can only dream of buying one. According to Tower Hamlets Food Bank, 70 per cent of all households in the borough survive on an annual income of less than £20,000.

So although I’m sure he meant no harm with his little jest (and he probably had a little bet it’d be reported – I’m told his toy is in the town hall car park today), it is a little crass.

In fact, it seems it’s a little tradition of his. Here’s his Facebook offering from March 2013, when he was taking the contractor’s shilling at Cheshire West and Chester council:

MSG

Such a scream.

Incidentally, he also wrote this on Facebook after last month’s Tower Hamlets council meeting, when I was ejected.

MSSG

Thanks Meic!

(By the way, I will be blogging about the Overview and Scrutiny meeting on the sale of Poplar Town Hall on Tuesday, when there were some quite entertaining exchanges between Meic and the chair, Josh Peck, and between Alibor Choudary and almost everyone else… .)

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[UPDATE: July 24: The Evening Standard have since covered this story and they have a video of Shafiur being pelted with an egg as he's being interviewed by a London Live reporter. All here].

I wrote this today for the Express website. It’s one of those stories that journalists file under ‘you couldn’t make it up’ for its weirdness: a filmmaker commissions some street art in the middle of Whitechapel’s Chicksand estate; the artists come up with a scheme that’s meant to depict humanity and diversity (and add a bit of colour to the area); and then some idiots say, ‘Actually that’s not humanity, that’s the Anti-Christ.’

They then start pelting the art (on a shop’s security shutters) with spit and eggs. But because that’s not frightening enough, they chuck the eggs at the staff inside the office, then threaten them this violence will continue until the art is removed.

And all this has happened for the best part of a month under the gaze of a Tower Hamlets council CCTV camera…with, as yet, no action (I asked the council for a comment, but they didn’t reply; Mayor Lutfur Rahman lives just around the corner, by the way, and I’m sure he’d be appalled). The police are also involved.

Now, is this just some brainless youths who’ve read somewhere about “bulging eyes” representing the Devil (in an obscure interpretation of Islam), and then acted like little ganglords of their estate for a bit of schools-out fun?

Or is there something more disturbing at play? Is someone whipping these youths up into a frenzy? Is there really a hardline Islamic fervour out there?

Shafiur Rahman, the filmmaker whose office has been targeted, believes the latter.

He went to the Brick Lane Mosque for help. He asked them to condemn the violence. They apparently told him the youths were wrong to use violence and they should have raised their concerns through other channels. Shafiur said an imam told him the painting is unacceptable in Islam because it depicts a face.

“Mosques and madrassas should be careful what they teach young kids,” Shafiur said today.

If anyone knows more about the people behind this, do please get in touch. Anonymity guaranteed.

Here’s the Express piece in full (there’s a video of me talking on the Express site).

bricklaneA22july14-490624

MUSLIM youths have vandalised the offices of a Bengali filmmaker in east London because they claim street art on his security shutters depicts the “anti-Christ”.

The gang has even threatened further violence against Shafiur Rahman’s property unless the images, two eyes, a nose and a mouth, are removed.

Graffiti artists Josh Jeavons and Edwinonwalls painted the images on three shutters of Mr Rahman’s Six Oranges film company, which is based in a building known as Zara’s Corner in Spelman Street, just off Brick Lane in Tower Hamlets.

Viewed from across the road the painting is actually a face, with a nose on the central shutter, two single eyes on the two either side, and a mouth running across all three.

The artists wanted it to represent humanity and diversity. 

They even wrote and crossed out the words, “colour” and “shape” and circled the word “space” to reinforce a message that what matters is not someone’s background or appearance but the community in which you live.

However, youths from the nearby Chicksand housing estate had a different interpretation.

They told Mr Rahman the painting in fact represented “dajjal”, an Islamic term in Arabic for the “anti-Christ”, or the devil, or the “false Messiah”.

Mr Rahman, who had given permission for the artwork, explained: “According to certain Islamic beliefs, Dajjal is the false prophet or anti-Christ who will come before Judgment Day, and will be known by his single bulging eye.”

Over the past month, his office has been attacked repeatedly.

Before

Before

After

After

The shutters have been splashed with spit and eggs, while the vandals have also hurled eggs into the office itself. 

An entire tin of white paint was then hurled on the shutters.

Staff have been intimidated and the damage to walls and computer equipment is estimated to be hundreds of pounds.

Mr Rahman, a filmmaker who is currently working on a documentary about Syrian refugees, said the youths have demanded the art is removed.

“When we have been locking up at night, they have told us to throw away the key and not to come back,” he said.

He has sought help from the local Brick Lane Mosque and asked their imams to explain the innocuous nature of the painting.

However, he said while the mosque condemned the violence itself, an imam told him the painting would not be accepted in Islam because it depicted a face.

Mr Rahman said: “This is completely ridiculous. This is not a painting of dajjal. This is an abstract figurative piece of work.

“Mosques and madrassas should be careful what they teach young kids. 

“Vandalism or hate crime, as far as I know, is not condoned by Islam.”

The vandalism has been reported to the police who are treating it as a hate crime, Mr Rahman said.

His office is also directly beside a council CCTV camera but it is not clear if the incidents have been caught on film. 

Marco Marasca, an editor at Six Oranges, said: “After these repeated incidents, we are worried about our personal safety. 

“We have just finished editing a film on oppressed Bihari Muslims. 

“We are writing a proposal about Syrian migrants and the hardships they suffer. “Why would we paint anything offensive towards Muslims?”

The office is in one of London’s trendiest areas and is home to internationally famous artists such as Tracey Emin and Gilbert and George.

Harjinder Bahra, the managing director of Six Oranges said: “Brick Lane is known the world over for its street art. 

“It has brought countless tourists, and the Bangladeshi restaurants actively welcome the vibe that street art has created. 

“To see this exciting art as somehow connected to the anti-Christ is bizarre.” 

Josh Jeavons, one of the street artists behind the work, said: “It wasn’t our intention to depict the devil. 

“Maybe there was a bit of ignorance on our part on not understanding what the eye represents.

“But our intention was to create a full face to show humanity in its most basic form to represent community, diversity and multiculturalism.

“It doesn’t matter what shape you are, or what colour, it’s about your community, the space where you live and what you make of it.”

Anti-extremism campaigners are puzzled by the incidents.

They wonder whether ordinary youths from the Chicksand estate would even be aware of theological terms such as “dajjal”.

They believe the youths are being encouraged by hardline Islamists.

The borough of Tower Hamlets has seen various activities from both far right fascists and Muslim extremists.

The small but threatening Muslim Patrols, a group backed by extremist preacher Anjem Choudary, physically attacked non-Muslims for drinking in Whitechapel last year.

Additionally, last December, Mr Choudary led a small march in Brick Lane calling for the many Bengali curry restaurants to stop serving alcohol.

Far right groups the English Defence League and Britain First have also tried to incite hatred in the borough.

No one from Brick Lane Mosque was available to comment this afternoon.

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Tower Hamlets election petitioner Andy Erlam has asked for the following to be published in response to my criticisms of him criticising John Biggs’s response to his original criticism of John. (Deep breath; I think I’ve got that right.)

Here’s his latest statement:

Like every journalist Ted Jeory loves conflict, even where none exists. John Biggs is a consummate politician and obviously relishes robust political debate especially if it leads to the best result. No doubt John is a very capable Member of the London Assembly and of the Police Committee, but he may not be an expert on Election Petitions.

It’s a pity Ted didn’t check some “facts” with me before publication, (we all make mistakes),‎ before giving the wrong impression. The decision to change lawyers was a majority decision.‎ Tower Hamlets First didn’t, of course, field candidates in the European Elections and corruption is less likely there.

The outcome of the hearing at 10am on Monday 28th. July at the Royal Courts of Justice (all welcome) will be decided entirely on the legal arguments put forward by our very able, independent, barrister not on comment made by Ted Jeory, John Biggs, myself or anyone else.

‎It is important that the Election Petition is free, and seen to be free , from national party political interests but instead representative of the entire electorate of Tower Hamlets. The prize is much, much, bigger than narrow party advantage. It’s about whether democracy matters.

What we can not do is accept statements or donations with strings. Everyone now has a primary duty, not to their political party or their mates, but exclusively to the court.  

Incidentally, the many people who have been caught up in wrong-doing have a special incentive to now step forward to make statements. They are protected by the evidence they make to the Election Court, even if they took part in criminal wrong-doing themselves.  ‎The police and the Director of Public Prosecutions can not prosecute anyone using evidence produced in the Election Court, (except if purgery is involved, which is fair enough).

‎All witnesses are thus protected.

My answer to all the critics and “Arm Chair Petitioners” is this: Time will tell who is right and who is wrong.

Rather than engage in conspiracy theories, let’s ask some more questions:

1. Were many council officers told in numerous meetings, where they were treated, to go out and get 100 votes each for Lutfur or else they would be thrown out of their jobs? 

2. Were they told that, if elected, John Biggs would sack them?

3. Is there a senior officer at the Town Hall, apart from the Returning Officer, who has had regular contact with DS Neil Smithson who is leading the investigation into alleged criminal election activity and, if so, for what reasons?

It’s the leadership of Tower Hamlets Council that is in trouble. Further revelations in the Sunday Telegraph and the contents of the PWC report will add fuel to the fire.

None of us are soothsayers but we can be allowed to speculate based on known facts and gut feelings: This time, this time, the entire political establishment in Tower Hamlets will fall. 

Time will tell.

Andy Erlam

andyerlam@ymail.com

If I may be as so bold to comment on article published on my own blog…there patently is conflict and I know from talking to the people involved there has been genuine unease and disagreement about strategy. But I don’t really need to say that do I?

I asked Andy what he meant by “majority decision” over the sacking of lawyer Gerald Shamash (because I’m not sure that was the case). He declined to comment but instead sent a further and probably final statement, which is below.

On the substance, he outlines or suggests some extremely serious allegations, which, until they are backed by proper evidence in court, border on innuendo. The hearing on July 28 will be fascinating. I genuinely want to know whether there is a case for false statement against the Lutfur camp in respect of smearing John Biggs as a racist.

Here’s Andy’s response to my questions:

Dear Ted,

Thanks for inviting me to comment further. 

Just to let you know that I do not wish to comment in detail further on the case.  As you know, the Petition is subject to legal proceedings and the details of the allegations and the evidence will be disclosed to the respondents, Mr. Rahman and the Returning Officer, when they are required to be in the Court. 

I would, however, like to clarify two points made in your most recent blog on 18th July: 

1. Mr. Rahman’s application to strike out the Petition is made on the grounds of its alleged failure to set out in sufficient detail the particulars of the allegations made in the Petition.  The Petition was drafted by Gavin Miller QC, while Steel and Shamash were still acting for the Petitioners.  The strike-out application has nothing to do with any subsequent developments.

2. Whilst it is of course a matter for the court, the strike-out application is being vigorously opposed and I am advised is unlikely to succeed, as the Court has the jurisdiction to order further particulars once the Petition has been presented.

Yours sincerely,

Andy

 

Read Full Post »

The four Tower Hamlets election petitioners are due to defend a ‘strike-out’ application (submitted by Mayor Lutfur Rahman and Returning Officer John Williams) before a judge on July 28 but they way things are progressing they might literally be laughed out of court.

For very many people, the shambles around the count, the poison of the campaign, and the unusual campaigning methods used in Tower Hamlets on polling day (unusual to outsiders at least), meant there was a good argument to have a case heard in court. It would help clear the air, one way or another.

But amassing evidence of wrongdoing is a painstaking business and it certainly helps if you have people who have been there before. Gerald Shamash, the Labour party solicitor nationally, falls into that category.

It was he who helped Andy Erlam file his petition with the Election Court last month.

But a couple of weeks ago, he was sacked. Andy decided he wanted a new team. He won’t say why but it may be because Gerald was too expensive or because he took the initiative on certain matters.

Even prior to this, there had already been a degree of tension among the petitioners, whose number include a two Labour party members and a Ukip activist. But the sacking inflamed matters, largely because Andy did not, apparently, consult the others about it.

In the background, they have all been very busy compiling witness statements and there are, as I understand it, some potentially quite interesting pieces of evidence.

But credibility is also a powerful ingredient and that requires calm and sensible statements as to the facts and arguments.

Which brings me to the developing row between John Biggs and Andy Erlam.

Andy kicked all this off last week when he wrote an “open letter” to John urging him to declare his stance on their case. I’m told Andy never consulted John before sending this letter. I blogged about it on Wednesday when I also printed John’s reply to Andy. (In that blog post, I questioned Andy’s claim that up to 15,000 votes in the mayoral election were affected by forgery or intimidation; he now says that was an error and the 15,000 relates both the council and mayoral elections. Quite why the European polls are omitted is unclear.)

I thought, and so did most who read it, that John was pretty clear in his response…that he’d do all in his power to make the case work, including lodging a witness statement.

But in his reply, John also referred obliquely to the Gerald Shamash issue, something few knew about beforehand; I didn’t.

However, this reference seems to have riled Andy and yesterday he sent me another statement by way of reply to John. Again, John wasn’t consulted and he has in turn sent me his reply to that reply.

It’s great having such transparency from politicians and I wish far more discourse was made in public, but I do wonder whether this is the best way of securing the strongest case to put to a judge.

Andy’s (quite lengthy) statement below, I’m afraid to say, does somewhat tilt towards the truther lands of conspiracy theories, particularly over the ballot boxes and THEOs. I hope he doesn’t say that to a judge.

My personal view is they don’t have a hope on proving industrial scale electoral fraud, but if they were to focus their minds and arguments on the issue of “false statement”, ie the deliberate portrayal of John Biggs as a racist, then they have more of a chance. After all, this is what did for Phil Woolas in 2010: he breached s106 of the Representation of the People Act, which says it is an illegal practice to make a false statement about a candidate “for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election”. Funnily enough, Gerald Shamash does have experience of this: he was Woolas’s solicitor.

Anyway, here’s Andy’s reply to John’s reply from Wednesday (and for what it’s worth, you have to admire Andy and the others for putting their money where others’ mouths are by fighting this):

Andy Erlam

Andy Erlam

I find it incredible that John Biggs continues to disbelieve that there may have been an industrial-scale fraud in the Mayoral and Local Council elections on 22nd May, despite mounting of evidence which is steadily accumulating and being turned into statements fit for the court, which is in itself a massive task. Respectfully, I look forward to receiving John’s own promised statement please at the very earliest opportunity, namely this Sunday. It is the least he can do in the circumstances.  

If true, the irregularities are so extensive that a scrutiny will show that the election results can not be relied upon and that a new election for Mayor will have to be held. Where that leaves the local election results is unknown legal territory. It is interesting that the Tower Hamlets Labour Group in the Council has been silent on the subject of the Petition.

Incidentally, there was an important error in my original article. It should have read: “I estimate that between 10,000 and 15,000 votes were forged or affected by intimidation across the Borough in the Mayoral and council elections.”

Is this a “wild” allegation?  We know from Tower Hamlets First sources that each THF candidate was ordered to each obtain 250 postal votes by fair means or foul. Guess which technique was most used?

The reports and statements that we have so far received show that there were very many illegal practices with postal votes across the Borough. I mean bullying, stealing postal ballot papers and opening completed postal ballots, re-sealing envelopes and posting.

Added to that we know from the work of Andrew Gilligan and our own informants that postal ballot applications were made for people not in the UK at the time and for ghost voters who don’t exist. 

Furthermore, there are reliable reports of crowds of THF activists systematically intimidating some voters, mostly Bangladeshi Brits, outside many and possibly most polling stations throughout election day.

There are also numerous reports of people, Bengali women in particular, being accompanied, bullied and intimidated to vote for Mayor Rahman and THF.

Even more allegations have now emerged about the use of council resources and staff in the election by THF and even the illegal access to voters’ private mobile numbers from council records.

At the same time, the police and polling station staff were unable or unwilling to control the situation. It is also alleged that the vast majority of Imans in the Borough told their flocks that to vote other than for Lutfur and THF would be “Un-Islamic”, which if proved is an illegal act.

The stream of allegations is endless and, in fact, the stream is turning into a river and the river a torrent.

John was at the count. Can he have failed to notice the hundreds of THF supporters, the chaotic conditions, the delays and the hugely varying figures in the votes counted in some wards, always changing the results from Labour to favour THF? Did he not see Mayor Rahman take control of the local council counts, often over-rulling the hapless John Williams, who was effectively humiliated as the Returning Officer. This was not chaos, it was organised chaos.

It doesn’t end there. Tower Hamlets Council refuses to answer Freedom of Information requests about the ballot boxes, on the false claim that Returning Officers are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The Information Commissioner doesn’t agree, but Tower Hamlets is desperately playing for time.

So LBTH won’t say where the ballot boxes were stored from the close of polls, how they were transported, by whom and whether they were guarded by the police. The lack of transparency and respect for the law of the country beggars belief, but it’s not new and it’s now getting more and more irrational in Tower Hamlets Council.

That leaves rumours to run wild. Some allege that the Theos accompanied the ballot boxes. These Tower Hamlets Enforcement Officers accountable to the Mayor, (the Mayor’s “private army of LBTH policemen”), are not impartial and, if true, their role in the election would be yet another deeply worrying matter. The council is also refusing to say exactly where in the town hall the ballot boxes were stored and whether the rooms were locked and if so, who had access via the swipe cards.

Further concerns have also emerged recently about the robustness of the police investigation currently taking place. It is known that suspected fraudulent votes have not been forwarded to the police and that complaints made to the police have not been followed up. Furthermore, even the very serious allegation that a car-load of postal ballot papers was discovered by the police seems to be being talked away by investigating police, incredible as it may seem. Andrew Gilligan reported that the car bootfull of forms were completed and has verified this fact but the policeman leading the investigations claims that the forms were blank and thus no criminal offences had been committed. It appears that the police are involved in a cover-up whether by inefficiency or worse. Was Andrew Gilligan wrong about Iraq?

And what is the Electoral Commission doing with its near £16 million budget?  Disgracefully, it is looking the other way when it comes to Tower Hamlets. 

John refers to accepting unpleasant results in a democracy. His comparison of Rahman with Thatcher is wholly inappropriate. A far better comparison is with the 2004 US Presidential Election which we now know had very extensive corruption that changed the course of American and indirectly international history. Ironically, Kerry was also a good looser.

The point is that if you live in Tower Hamlets, you don’t live in a democracy. How confident can we be that our votes in the next General Election will be respected? Given the likelihood of a very close General Election contest in 2015, this is of huge significance nationally.

One last point, the very big losers in the catastrophic Mayoral and local elections of 2014 are the Banglashi-Brits in Tower Hamlets. Culture, language, literacy problems, the community power structures, poor housing and difficult individual situations mean that the population is very vulnerable to bullying, intimidation and financial and other pressures. Tower Hamlets First does not represent the Bangali population, as it claims. It is a small clique, like any other, seeking power for its’ own reasons.

Lutfur was a Labour man and wants to be one again. He is a politician bred in the Labour Movement of East London. Presumably he knows a lot of what has happened over the years – the compromises and the errors of Labour and in the forthcoming trial much will come out.

Mayor Rahman, whom I’ve never met and have no personal opinion about, claims many good policies and achievements. Whether these are accurate or not, I can not judge. But what I do know is that the means never ever justifies the end and that, if morality is cast aside, the means become the end.

There needs to be a revolution in politics in the East End. Political corruption has been seen as the norm here for decades. But corruption is not normal. Nor is it unique to Tower Hamlets, it’s just that irregularities here have been so extensive and so arrogantly displayed that, this time, things have gone too far.  

John Biggs knows perfectly well, although he would prefer otherwise, that Gerald Shamash, the Labour Party solicitor, is no longer our solicitor and that Gavin Miller is no longer our barrister and that Francis Hoar is. We do not wish to comment on this decision.

There are two points of principle here. We will not allow any donor, however large, to steer the Petition, nor will we allow any political party to pull the strings.

Given that John Biggs is the likely beneficiary of a re-election, as things stand, I’m surprised that he describes the Election Petitioners as “mavericks”. The dictionary definition of a maverick is: “an independent individual who does not go along with a group or party.” I guess I and the 3 other Petitioners, Azmal Hussain, Debbie Simone and Angela Moffat, will willingly plead guilty to that charge. Only with massive support from the good people of Tower Hamlets can we change the area for good. Further specific allegations must be sent very urgently to us to help us all win the case.

Andy Erlam

Tower Hamlets Election Petitioner

(Personal Capacity)

andyerlam@ymail.com

And here’s John’s reply:

John Biggs

John Biggs

Everything that Andy Erlam says about the election may be true but that doesn’t mean that it is true or that if it is true it is possible to prove that it is true in a court without sufficient evidence. But I am encouraging anyone with evidence of abuses to share this with the petitioners because theirs is a very serious series of allegations and must be properly examined. I am pleased the petition has been lodged in order that the allegations, widely believed to be true, can be examined.

I will be making my experiences known and will make a statement, particularly but not just looking at the allegations of racism levelled against me which I believe were deliberately invented to try to polarise opinion and particularly to encourage BAME voters to back Lutfur Rahman by spreading misinformation. This action was dishonest but also it was an action without principle or regard to the responsibility local politicians have to encourage and foster good relations.

I believe too that there were multiple abuses. But unlike Andy I do not believe in shooting from the hip without making statements that can be shown to be true. And I am also sensitive to the deep sense of victimhood that Lutfur Rahman likes to foster and which allegations without sufficient evidence will nourish. That will be no good for the East End.

In common with Andy, I do believe that the current mayor is bad news for East London. His inward looking culture rooted in patronage says nothing to the future and creates a vacuum while urgent leadership is needed. But I think he will ultimately be defeated by the proper and measured use of evidence and truth.

I do hope the petition leads to a thorough and good hearing and I do believe the result was improperly influenced and manipulated but in order for the truth to be found there must be more light and less heat. There must be a risk that an alternative tactic will achieve the opposite result to that it intends.

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A few weeks ago, Andy Erlam, who stood and lost in Bow East for his Red Flag Ant-Corruption Party in May, launched an Election Petition challenging the result for the directly elected mayor poll.

That petition is being backed by a number of people from various parties and is currently going through the early court processes. The petitioners are having to do the very hard legwork of amassing evidence to present to a judge who must make a decision on whether there is a case to answer.

Yesterday, Andy wrote an open letter to John Biggs asking for him to “publicly back” the petition. Hitherto, John has welcomed the petition and the chance it might give to clear the air.

Andy copied me and other journalists into his open letter. It’s below. You’ll see he says this:

I estimate that between 10,000 and 15,000 votes were forged or affected by intimidation across the Borough in the Mayoral election

I asked him for examples of the evidence he’d gathered to back up that claim. He said that wasn’t possible at this stage because he wanted to protect people’s identities. So I asked him to provide the calculations behind his estimate and how he extrapolated to that number. He still hasn’t answered.

My personal view is that he risks looking silly. The figure of 15,0000 is huge: he’s saying that up to 40 per cent of the 37,000 votes for Lutfur Rahman were as a result of fraud or forgery. That really would be Mugabe-land. It’s also a bit of an insult to Lutfur’s electorate. Well, a bit more than a bit.

Anyway, the open letter has prompted a reply from John Biggs. In it, he uses his strongest language yet.

He, too, feels some of Andy’s claims might be somewhat outlandish, but he strongly believes the election was “bent”.

John goes beyond his previously stated belief that there was widespread postal vote fraud. He now also believes there could have been “organised fraud” in the counting of votes.

He does not state how, but I understand the allegation is this: counters deliberately undercounted John’s votes and over-counted Lutfur’s. Counters count the votes in bundles of 50. The belief is that some counters counted to say 47 or 48 for Lutfur’s votes and bundled them up into a pile of 50; meanwhile, the counters would count to say 52 or 53 for every 50 of John’s votes. So Lutfur’s piles of 50 votes overstated his true position, while John’s understated his. Or so the allegation goes. I understand that some counters were called up on this by party agents and other representatives on the night.

John, in his letter, also confirms he’ll cooperate fully with the petition and appear as a witness.

Here are the two letters.

Dear John,

I am writing to you to ask you to this week publicly back the Tower Hamlets Election Petition that was launched on Friday 13th June.

As you know, there is very deep concern in the community about the legitimacy of the Mayoral and local council elections held on 22nd May and the subsequent chaotic count.  I do understand and admire the fact that you have been a “good loser” in the contest which you were said to have lost by 3,500 votes.

However, there is a growing mountain of evidence which points to the fact that you did not lose, because the election was grossly corrupted by industrial-scale irregularities ranging from “ghost voters”, multiple voting, intimidation at the polling station, the stealing, forgery of postal votes on a massive scale and deliberate miscounting of votes.

On the basis of reports received by me to date, I estimate that between 10,000 and 15,000 votes were forged or affected by intimidation across the Borough in the Mayoral election.

If so, had the election been honest and managed properly, I believe that you would have won by a substantial majority.

As regards the count, the only issue in my mind is whether the chaos was just chaos or whether it was organised chaos.  In 40 years in politics observing elections and counts, including a stint as an official EU International Election Observer in South Africa in 1994, I have never seen such intimidation, corruption and deception in an election and count.  

Furthermore, the Council refuses to say where it held the ballot boxes following the election and a whole series of corrupt ballot papers have been kept from the police. I am now convinced that the current police investigation into cases where there have been arrests is not serious and that the police are simply going through the motions of investigating election fraud.

So the point is, that it is not John Biggs who is the real looser in Tower Hamlets, it is the whole voting population who have been cheated of a fair and democratic election and as such face next year’s General Election with absolutely no confidence that their vote will be honestly and fairly handled. If you continue to sit on the fence, this golden opportunity to clean up Tower Hamlets politics once and for all will be lost. People look to community leaders like you to show a lead when times are tough. Tower Hamlets is not presently a democracy area of Britain.

As you know, 4 individual voters have stuck their necks out for you in launching this Election Petition. We are free from political party influence and have no motive except to see justice down. Now is the time for John Biggs to stick his neck out for us and for Tower Hamlets.

I hope that you will be able to issue a statement this week publicly backing the Election Petition and urging all Labour Party members and all voters to make statements on irregularities that can be used in court. This open letter is designed to open up the debate much further.

Yours sincerely,
Andy Erlam.

 

And this is John Biggs’s reply:

Dear Andy,

I was very busy yesterday and only became aware of your letter when two of the media outlets to whom you had forwarded it asked for my comments! I am therefore replying on the assumption that you will share this reply with the media (and am pre-emptively copying it to one outlet).  This is an important matter and so my reply is quite lengthy, with no apology to those seeking sound-bites.

My position is as follows:

I am a democrat and accept that the result announced by the Returning Officer must be treated as the proper result unless and until it is proved otherwise. To not do so would throw the foundations of democracy into dispute. However, I accept that there is a very widespread unhappiness with the election.

One needs however to be careful and to disentangle the strong antipathy that Mayor Rahman attracts from large sections of the electorate from underlying anxieties about whether the election was fair. By recent analogy, many people of our generation will recall that Margaret Thatcher was massively unpopular and polarising to many people but that she still legitimately won elections. The election, and administration, have both in my view been unhealthily polarising but we must disentangle that from anxieties about whether the election was fair. It is important to make that point.

You raise very serious concerns about the election, which have also been raised by others. My position is that I share most of these. I believe that there was a considerable amount of election fraud, principally but not only centred around the manipulation of postal votes. I am less persuaded about the allegations of intimidation, although conduct around, and in, polling stations was a disgrace.

This feeds however into the next point, which is that, separate from the comprehensive breach of the ‘election protocol’ by one party, conduct at polling stations being just one example of this, the administration of the election, both the management of polling stations and of the count, fell far short of being well-organised. I believe that we may also find that there was organised fraud in the counting of votes, albeit by a minority of those involved. All of these things need to be tested, with evidence. Without evidence they remain mere beliefs.
 
I am also angry about the smear tactics used in the campaign, by the Mayor’s supporters (and by nobody else), against me, as the only serious challenger to the incumbent. Specifically, I am not a racist and I was disgusted by the unprincipled use of this claim to try to polarise opinion and to secure support for the Mayor as a perpetual victim. Life does need to move on from this form of politics and if redress is available by showing that the result was improperly influenced by this claim, knowing it was false, then it should be available.  
 
In other words I think there are comprehensive concerns, and I have shared these, as have other Labour members, with the police, the electoral commission, the council, the media, with yourself and your fellow petitioners and with your legal representative, Gerald Shamash.
 
You ask if I will ‘stick my neck out for us and for Tower Hamlets’. You need to understand that we must respect and work with our democracy and not make wild claims that will damage good community relations and which do not respect the proper democratic will of voters. However, there are continuing widespread concerns, and, short of criminal sanctions, an election court is the only way to test these concerns and I welcome you and your fellow petitioners in making this challenge. I will do all that I can to ensure that the case is properly considered, including making statements, appearing as a witness as necessary, and working with your legal team, and I will do all that I can to ensure that it is, and to encourage others to support you.  I will do so in a way that is respectful of all the people of our borough.
 
There are two final points, which are that to succeed your petition must be supported by an adequate legal team, and that the partnership you seek with me and others needs to be a real one and not a maverick campaign, as it will otherwise fail. Your claims must be based on evidence which can be persuasive in an election court. You need therefore to use a serious legal team which inspires confidence and encourages others to come forwards, and you, working equally with your other three petitioners, must be open and clear with the people of Tower Hamlets, and respectful of all parts of our community, in making your claim. If you do these things, you will attract support and the likelihood that the truth  will be known.
 
John Biggs

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Of all the many redacted documents released last week by Tower Hamlets council was a fascinating letter from the town hall’s “interim monitoring officer”, the Great Meic Sullivan-Gould (for he is indeed very great).

This dragon-slayer arrived at the council with, according to him, a stellar reputation in local government having served with a long list of the country’s finest councils.

The people of Cheshire West and Chelmsford are no doubt grateful for his Travelling Salesman services but for Meic, such praise wasn’t enough. He wanted a crack at the biggest crackpot of them all: Tower Hamlets.

So when the post became vacant in the New Year, having been vacated by Isabella Freeman and her interim successor Mark Norman, Meic offered to help.

He did his research, of course; he read The Telegraph, this blog and Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs.

But why don’t we let him tell the story. Here’s his coquettish email to BBC Panorama reporter John Ware, which was released under FoI:

Interviews Interviews2

There are so many nuggets in here, it’s difficult to know where to start. For someone apparently so well regarded, he is a bit careless.

Forget for the moment his admonishment of Mayor Lutfur Rahman for his a “coup de theatre” (that’s a reference to the little game Takki Sulaiman and Lufur played at the outset of the mayor’s interview with John Ware when they handed the BBC thousands of documents requested two months earlier).

And forget his patronising dismissal of the journalism surrounding Tower Hamlets as “politically motivated” pursued by people “anxious to keep an easy but unfounded ‘Byword for sleaze’ story running”.

But do consider his dismissal of opposition councillors who he describes as “bitterly disenfranchised and largely impotent”. How neutral. You’ll remember he went further on the night of the Panorama programme by taking to Facebook to lavish praise on his boss, Lutfur. That little slip saw him banned from any involvement in the Election count, an astonishing state of affairs for the Monitoring Officer.

And another paragraph in that email might have similar consequences for an Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting on July 22.

At that meeting councillors will be discussing a report by forensic internal auditors on the sale of old Poplar Town Hall.

Andrew Gilligan wrote about it on January 18 here. The building was sold in 2011 for £875,000 to a shell company called Dreamstar, which was established Mujibul Islam, who was a key ally of Lutfur in the 2010 mayoral election. Within months of that sale, the new owners secured under delegated powers a change of use for the building to a hotel.

Peter Golds and many others believed there was a whiff about it and demanded an emergency investigation by internal audit specialists at the accountancy firm, Mazars.

I don’t know why they bothered. Because on their books they already had the world’s best fraud hound.

You see, Andrew’s article a couple of days before Meic started work so he set about investigating it himself. This is what he told John Ware: “I have over the last few weeks reviewed the council’s files on specific property disposals and planning approvals and I have discussed the published concerns…As I told the people who have commissioned your work, I have found nothing to substantiate the concerns.”

Mazars’ final report has just been published here. It’s fascinating and I understand that Team Lutfur, while still of course maintaining clean hands, are furious at the council’s slipshod record keeping on something that was so obviously a hot potato from the outset. Ever so carelessly (ever so), the council has lost key documents and both Lutfur and Aman Dalvi, the council’s director of development, have “no recollection” of allegedly key conversations they are said to have had about the disposal.

The Mazars report should be read in full but as a flavour here’s a summary of their findings.

In March 2008, the council’s then cabinet (led at that time by Labour’s Denise Jones) declares the listed building surplus to requirements and orders officers to examine a possible sale.

In January 2011, three months after he was elected, Lutfur and his cabinet order an “accelerated sale” (between 2008 and 2011, the building had been used by Ian Mikardo school). Bankers from BNP Paribas then estimate it could fetch in those circumstances between £750-£950k. The cabinet decided against waiting for the property market to recover.

In May 2011, the property is marketed by BNP Paribas for six weeks.

In June 2011, 10 sealed bids are received, ranging from £876k in net present value terms to £350k. The Limehouse Project charity had offered £1.2m over 20 years, but that was worth £526k in real terms. All the other bidders were commercial enterprises and one individual. Among them was a £850k bid from Dreamstar.

On July 1 2011, Paribas write to bidders asking for ‘best and final offers’ by close of play on July 8 2011.

On July 11 2011, these best and final offers were opened in the presence of three council officers and two Paribas staff. Mazars find that neither the council nor Paribas have kept the official documents relating to the opening of the bids.

On July 11 2011, the best and final offer from Dreamstar arrives. It is three days late. And it has increased from £850k to £875k.  Mazars state: “The offer from Dreamstar was received late and therefore does not comply with the council’s procedures.” Mazars asked why the bid was accepted for consideration and the council said it would have been ‘remiss’ not to have done so. The council claimed Dreamstar had told them they would be submitting a new bid and that they’d posted it on July 8… . Mazars add: “In addition to accepting the late bid from Dreamstar, we would note that the offer from Dreamstar was not the highest received and therefore the council, by not noting the reason for its decision not to accept the highest offer, has not followed its own policy in regard to accepting the highest offer either.”

On July 12, BNP Paribas advise the council to tell Mr X he is the highest bidder with £876,000 (subject to survey). They suggest telling him to prove he has the finance. They also recommend telling Dreamstar “they have been unsuccessful [and] to focus their attention on Limehouse Library”. They advise naming three other parties they are the “underbidders” in case Mr X fails to come up with the goods.

Throughout August a number of emails bounce back and forth within Aman Dalvi’s team. They are concerned that council delays might cause some bidders to withdraw interest.

On August 24, the council’s “head of valuation and estates” emails Aman to say “the range of returns [ie bids] is very narrow, which looks a bit odd to be honest”.

On August 25, the council’s Capital and Asset Management Board meets (although Aman is not present). The minutes state: “..there will be progress on this [Poplar Town Hall] after [Aman] has met with the Mayor today.” Mazars state: “We spoke to [Aman] who said he was not sure what this reference was made to, and reiterated that he was not present at the meeting when this point was minuted and that he had no recollection of speaking to the mayor in regard to this matter.”

On September 8, the council’s head of corporate property emails Aman Dalvi to say because the bids from Mr X and Dreamstar are so close (£876k vs £875k), they should be invited to a “contracts race” to see who can get to exchange of contracts first.

On September 14, Dreamstar is registered and incorporated at Companies House.

On September 15, Aman emails back to agree the approach.

On September 15, a note is placed on the legal file regarding the contracts race. The note is written by the “Council Solicitor”. It is not known whether this is Isabella Freeman, although the word ‘he’ in the following statement suggests not. The note states: “I said ‘My heart sinks’. How can we possibly have a race for property of this type which we are selling off on a long lease? It’s bound to end in dispute and litigation, all that needs to happen is for one of the buyers to say that that [Council Solicitor] in your legal department sent something out to the other side 24 hours before he sent it to us. However, [Asset Manager] is only doing what he is told, this has come from the Mayor. [Head of Asset Management and Valuation] was listening in and obviously volunteered to take over, so I spoke to him and expressed my doubts, which he didn’t really share, saying he had done contract races before when he was at Lewisham. He said he had made it clear in his report that £876 beats £875, and Aman agrees, but it has come from the very top…”.

On September 20, BNP Paribas invite Dreamstar and Mr X to a contracts race.

On September 29, Dreamstar win the race and contracts are exchanged.

On November 11, sale completes.

On December 6 2011, Dreamstar formally asks the council’s planning department for a change of use and listed building consent on the property to make it into a “boutique hotel”.

On July 3 2013, change of use is granted. Mazars are told the decision was made under delegated powers (rather than go through a publicly held committee) because the application didn’t  trigger 20 or more objections and it didn’t meet various other criteria for that to happen.

Mazars in their final report are at pains to stress that the “sole purpose of this report is to assist the council in deciding what further action it may wish to take in this matter”.

In the event they make six recommendations:

1. “The council should locate the original bid opening sheet to examine what comments were made by officers at the time of the opening and identify what consideration was given to the bid from Dreamstar.”

2. The council should examine what legal advice it sought about accepting Dreamstar’s late bid.

3. The council should consider further interviews with staff and/or members to investigate the matter.

4. Council should consider whether another internal audit of its fixed asset sale processes is needed.

5. The council should consider whether potential buyers of council assets should be provided to make a declaration about any relationships with council members or staff.

6. Council should review the processes for deciding whether such change of use matters should be carried out under delegated powers.

All in all a murky mess.

Dreamstar’s original bid was below the highest bid of £876k. A council officer says the “narrow range” of bids looks “odd”. Dreamstar’s revised bid (after the original bids are opened) increases from £850k to £875k, but it is received late…against the council’s strict rules. Yet it was accepted. The council says it had a duty to secure value for taxpayers.

Crucial paperwork is missing. A council lawyer reports being told that a decision to trigger a contracts race between Dreamstar and Mr X came from Lutfur. Neither Lutfur nor Aman “recall” having any such discussion.

There may well be a series of cock-ups in here that give the perception of conspiracy. But it certainly doesn’t look good and it seems a council lawyer was so concerned they left a potential bombshell of a note on the legal file. That lawyer no longer works for the council but they might be called back to explain themselves.

But then again, we all know that would be a waste of time because Meic has already determined there’s nothing to worry about.

 

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It’s probably a legacy from my days as a member of the “accountants’ union”, but I’ve always had a respect for the worker bees in Tower Hamlets council’s over-stretched finance department. They do a difficult job in very tricky circumstances and they have to deal with all manner of politics from members and senior officers.

But they probably  won’t thank me for highlighting this piece of legislation that may well add to their workload.

Under the Audit Commission Act, every council must for a four week period throw open its books for public inspection. It’s a fabulous piece of legislation that pre-dates the Coalition’s equally excellent transparency agenda. But curiously enough you won’t find any feature about it in the £1.5m pages of East End Life.

Tower Hamlets council, like most other authorities, aren’t that keen for people to know about. However, they are required by law to place a public notice in a local paper advertising the dates when the inspection takes place in a particular year. This year’s advert, for the financial period April 2013 to March 2014, was placed in the back pages of East End Life on June 9…nine pages after that week’s restaurant review, for which a council worker was handed £40 for a nice meal.

Here’s the advert:

Inspection Advert 2013-14

Under this legislation, anyone can ask to see the details of any transaction during the financial year in question. This includes seeing copies of any contract, purchase order or invoice or other supporting documents.

So, if you were so inclined you could ask to see all transactions made for restaurant reviews in East End Life during 2013/14. You could ask for a list of all payments made for these reviews and view all invoices submitted by external contributors or expense claims submitted by staff.

Some issues might still be subject to confidentiality clauses. For example, you won’t be able to ask for individuals’ salaries. You can ask for all salaries in a particular area but you won’t see names attached to them. The Data Protection Act still applies.

However, this legislation allows for far more transparency than the both the Freedom of Information Act and the lists of payments to suppliers that councils must now publicise. So it gives us all a chance to have a look under those redacting pens.

For example, you’ll remember from this post here that when I asked under the FoI Act recently for the invoices submitted by the Champollion PR agency for its work combatting the Panorama programme, the council sent me this:

Panorama Champollion Invoices3

 

 

Under the Audit Commission Act, those black pen marks will have to be removed.

The Act is a potential gold mine of information, but you only have until July 28 to submit questions and follow ups. If you ask for information before then, the council must answer it even if that answer comes after July 28. However, the earlier you ask the questions the better.

And a plea (for the sake of the accountants), be wise and judicious in what you ask for. Fishing expeditions are of course allowed but try to narrow your searches and questions. Think about what you want. For example, you might want to see a summary of all expenses submitted by officers and councillors for “entertaining” (councillors rarely submit such claims by the way). From that summary you might want to drill down into something by asking for copies of receipts for a particular meal. Which restaurant, what did they eat and who did they entertain?

You might want to ask for copies of invoices submitted by a particular consultant or contractor.

It might be a good idea to discuss on this blog what you or someone else might ask. Let’s co-ordinate questions.

For my side, I’ve submitted an early batch of questions on Champollion, the lawyers Taylor Wessing and East End Life’s accounts. I’ve also asked for copies of invoices for Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s chauffeured Mercedes in the period.

And I’ve also asked for any payments made to The Society of the Golden Keys during the year. What’s that, you ask? In March 2012 (I saw this some time ago, but had forgotten about it), the council’s communications department paid the Society £800 for membership fees. I was told it was on behalf of Takki Sulaiman, the £100,000 a year head of communications. I was told he attended dinners/events with the society.

Here’s more about the Society, which is a membership group for hotel concierges in Britain.

The Society of the Golden Keys in Great Britain is thriving. With strict conditions of membership requiring proof of professional relationships with guests and work colleagues, approximately three hundred and thirty concierges in Great Britain now proudly wear the symbol of their status: the Golden Keys lapel pin. Each is revered for his or her professional gravitas, integrity, local knowledge and impeccable recommendations. The Society encourages friendship and camaraderie and the members meet formally each month. The Ladies’ Night Dinner and Dance and the Anniversary Cocktail Party are the social highlights of the year for many of the leading figures in the hospitality industry, as well there are many other events which the society of the Golden Keys help to promote.

The council told me it was important to have membership to boost tourism in Tower Hamlets. Perhaps it does. But it’s only fair that taxpayers know, and that’s what the Act allows.

 

 

 

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There is an argument that the presence of Ukip on the mayoral ballot paper in May helped secure a victory for Lutfur Rahman. Their candidate, Nick McQueen polled some 4,400 votes, a significant proportion of which might otherwise have gone to Labour’s John Biggs.

I don’t really buy that argument but I think even Lutfur’s camp are glad he ran.

What I do think is more likely is that Ukip’s presence in yesterday’s by-election cost the Tories two of their three seats in Blackwall & Cubitt Town.

Here are the results:

LBTH BCT results

The turnout was low and some remarked there were more police and observers from the Electoral Commission than voters at the polling stations yesterday. The count at Anchorage House was, by all accounts, far more controlled than last time, which isn’t saying much.

And it finished at 3am, after two recounts. After a fair amount of confident boasting by some in Lutfur’s camp, his Tower Hamlets First candidates came nowhere close.

The recounts centred on two of Labour’s candidates and Chris Chapman from the Tories. As you can see, only five votes separated second from fourth. At various points, Labour’s Candida Ronald was ahead of party colleague Anisur Rahman, then fortunes switched and finally settled on Candida.

Congratulations to the three winners and particular commiserations to Gloria Thienel who was regarded well as a councillor in the last term. I’m fairly sure that the 200 odd votes picked up each by the Ukip slate cost her a seat.

But that’s democracy. Whether Ukip continue to challenge and engage in council meetings from the public gallery remains to be seen.

And this is how the chamber now looks: Labour 22 seats; Tower Hamlets First 18; Tories 5.

Labour needed 23 for a controlling majority in the chamber and that would have been significant. As things stand, unless Labour are able to persuade Tory boss Peter Golds to defect., we’re probably in for four more years of dysfunctional politics and council business.

I think it’s unlikely Lutfur will be able to entice five Labour councillors to defect. And I think it’s likely that the Tories will join Labour on various votes, but probably not as many as the last time.

Significant matters to resolve include what to do about the vacant chief executive’s position. That’s down to vote of the full council. Team Lutfur will not have their way on that.

And as I’ve said before, having a strong chief executive in place is going to be key in stabilising the council. I think Eric Pickles and co also believe this. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what PwC recommend.

 

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By Sadia Ahmed, 13, of Swanlea School in Whitechapel (and formerly of that other great incubator of current talent, Hermitage Primary School in Wapping)

This is the blurb on YouTube:

SLAMbassadors UK is the Poetry Society’s national youth slam championships, and the longest running youth slam in the country. Students work with top spoken word artists to create their own pieces around the theme of ‘identity’.

Swanlea School in Tower Hamlets worked with poet Joelle Taylor as part of the Tower Hamlets programme, supported by the Tower Hamlets Schools Library Services.

The national finals will be held on October 31 in the Clore Ballroom of the Royal Festival Hall, and feature Kate Tempest. http://slam.poetrysociety.org.uk

 

[Normal service resumes tomorrow with the results of the Blackwall & Cubitt Town by-elections.]

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