An Electoral Commission investigation has found “significant evidence of joint working” between Vote Leave and another supposedly independent organisation, BeLeave, which resulted in it overspending by nearly £500,000.
Vote Leave returned an “incomplete and inaccurate spending report”, with £234,500 reported incorrectly and missing nearly £12,849 of other invoices, according to the watchdog.
Darren Grimes, founder of BeLeave, has been personally fined £20,000 for spending £675,000 with Aggregate IQ on behalf of his unregistered campaign group, which had an independent spending limit of £10,000, and for incorrectly reporting that spending in his return.
The Commission has referred both Grimes, and the responsible person for Vote Leave, David Halsall, to the Metropolitan Police in relation to false declarations of campaign spending. The watchdog also said it has shared its investigation files with the police in relation to whether anyone else connected to the campaign may have commented related offences which lie outside the Commission’s regulatory remit.
The Vote Leave committee included a number of high profile government ministers and Conservative figures including Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Liam Fox, Iain Duncan Smith, Steve Baker, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, and Lord Lawson.
Vote Leave was the officially designated campaign group for Leave in 2016’s Brexit referendum, where the result was 51.9% for Leave and 48.1% for Remain. The Commission’s findings show that Vote Leave illegally overspent their agreed limit by seven percent, a figure that could have impacted the tight result.
Bob Posner, Electoral Commission Director of Political Finance and Regulation & Legal Counsel, said: “The Electoral Commission has followed the evidence and conducted a thorough investigation into spending and campaigning carried out by Vote Leave and BeLeave. We found substantial evidence that the two groups worked to a common plan, did not declare their joint working and did not adhere to the legal spending limits. These are serious breaches of the laws put in place by Parliament to ensure fairness and transparency at elections and referendums. Our findings relate primarily to the organisation which put itself forward as fit to be the designated campaigner for the ‘leave’ outcome.”
Commenting on the investigation itself, Bob Posner continued: “Vote Leave has resisted our investigation from the start, including contesting our right as the statutory regulator to open the investigation. It has refused to cooperate, refused our requests to put forward a representative for interview, and forced us to use our legal powers to compel it to provide evidence. Nevertheless, the evidence we have found is clear and substantial, and can now be seen in our report.”
Prior to the release of the Commission’s findings, Vote Leave attempted to smear the watchdog as a political entity and lied to the public about the investigation, claiming that the Commission refused to interview Vote Leave individuals. In reality, Vote Leave refused to cooperate with the investigation at every stage and the figures involved in the campaign have refused to admit any fault despite the matter now becoming a criminal investigation.