Tower Hamlets mayor guilty of corruption and bribery in election fraud trial
Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman has been being found guilty of corruption, bribery, using taxpayer-funded grants to induce votes and making false statements.
Following a 10-week hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice, judge Richard Mawrey QC declared the May 2014 mayoral election, which saw Rahman defeat Labour's John Biggs standing as an independent Tower Hamlets First candidate, void and must be re-run. Rahman was barred from standing again.
The case was brought by four Tower Hamlets residents, who claimed Rahman had won the election through a campaign of corruption and "widespread intimidation".
Rahman had denied any wrongdoing, saying there was "little, if any" evidence against him. His lawyers described the allegations as inventions, exaggerations and "in some cases downright deliberately false".
But in a scathing verdict, Mawrey found Rahman and his supporters had engaged in vote-rigging and intimidation, used grants to induce support and even enlisted the chair of the Tower Hamlets Council of Mosques to tell Muslim residents it was their religious duty to vote for him.
He said the evidence "displayed an alarming state of affairs in Tower Hamlets".
"This is not the consequence of the racial and religious mix of the population, nor is it linked to any ascertainable pattern of social or other deprivation," Mawrey said.
"It is the result of the ruthless ambition of one man."
He described Rahman as an "evasive" witness who had "driven a coach and horses" through local authority law, adding that he is a man "whose hair-trigger reaction is to accuse anyone who disagrees with him of racism and/or Islamophobia".
At polling stations, the judge said Rahman and his supporters had painted a picture of a "jolly family atmosphere". Yet there was "overwhelming" evidence that organised groups of Tower Hamlets First supporters had aggressively harangued voters, particularly those from the Bangladeshi community. Witnesses again reported that voters were told it was their religious duty to support Rahman and that Biggs and the Labour Party were racist.
On the use of grants, the judge said the control of funding was firmly in the mayor's hands, showing a total disregard for the council's officers, members and "almost certainly" the law. Large grants were made to organisations judged ineligible under the council's assessment process. In some cases, the recipients had not even applied for them in the first place. The funds went to organisations targeting the Bangladeshi community and in particular wards likely to support Rahman or THF councillors.
Mawrey said it is "inescapable" that the administration of the grants was corrupt, and because Rahman is guilty of bribery because he targeted grants to induce the votes of the beneficiaries while having sole control of the funds.
Rahman was also found guilty of bribery after using public money to pay a television channel aimed at the Bengali-speaking community for broadcasts ostensibly about the borough and its administration that were, in fact, personal political broadcasts.
In addition, the channel's chief political correspondent, Mohammed Jubair, was employed by the council at taxpayers' expense to act as an adviser on media relations with the Bangladeshi community. The judge said that, beyond Rahman's own evidence, there was nothing to show Jubair ever did any work for the council and £20,000 could not be accounted for with timesheets. His real purpose, Mawrey concluded, was to publicise the mayor and ensure favourable coverage, amounting to misuse of public money.
In his formal conclusion, Mawrey declared the May 2014 election void and that Rahman has not lawfully been mayor since that date. Rahman is "incapable" of being elected to fill the resulting vacancy. As he is also a lawyer, the judgement will be reported to the Solicitors' Regulatory Authority.
Cllr Alibor Choudhury, Rahman's election agent and described by the judge as one of the mayor's "cronies", was also found personally guilty of corrupt and illegal practices. He must immediately stand down as a councillor and will be disqualified from office for the statutory period.
He added that the election of all THF councillors was achieved through the same corrupt and illegal practices but they cannot be removed as they were not named in the petition and can hold their seats until 2018.
"The real losers in this case are the citizens of Tower Hamlets and, in particular, the Bangladeshi community. Their natural and laudable sense of solidarity has been cynically perverted into a sense of isolation and victimhood, and their devotion to their religion has been manipulated - all for the aggrandisement of Mr Rahman," the judge said.
"The result has been to alienate them from the other communities in the borough and to create resentment in those other communities. Mr Rahman and Mr Choudhury, as has been seen, spent a great deal of time accusing their opponents, especially Mr Biggs, of 'dividing the community' but, if anyone was 'dividing the community', it was they."
In response, Tower Hamlets First said the judgement "has come as a shock".
"The mayor strongly denies any wrongdoing and had full confidence in the justice system, and so this result has been surprising to say the least," it said in a statement.
"We are seeking further legal advice on the matter in relation to a judicial review."
Tower Hamlets Council told LGE: "Mr Mawrey also presented a judgement which cleared the council’s returning officer, John Williams, and council staff of all allegations related to fraudulent practice in the delivery and administration of the 2014 elections.
"We welcome recognition that the council's strong electoral processes, which have been subject to further intense scrutiny during this petition hearing, are sound and Tower Hamlets Council will now take the steps necessary to hold an election for executive mayor of Tower Hamlets."
The judgement comes after local government secretary Eric Pickles sent in commissioners to take over the executive functions of the council, following the "shameful" findings of a PwC report that had raised concerns about the administration of grants and publicity activities.