The full story of the 'medieval monarch' of Tower Hamlets

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The full story of the 'medieval monarch' of Tower Hamlets
« on: November 09, 2014, 08:13:06 PM »

The full story of the 'medieval monarch' of Tower Hamlets

Ballot recount suggests that 'significant irregularities’ put Lutfur Rahman in mayoral robes

Lutfur Rahman

Lutfur Rahman Photo: REX

Andrew Gilligan
By  Andrew Gilligan

11:00PM GMT 08 Nov 2014

A high court recount of thousands of votes cast for the extremist-linked mayor of Tower Hamlets, The full story of the 'medieval monarch' of Tower Hamlets in May’s election has uncovered “significant irregularities” that may, if reflected in the whole sample, be sufficient to overturn the result.

The official “scrutiny”, in the presence of a judge, took place in strict secrecy last week as part of a legal challenge to the election, which was marred by widespread claims of intimidation and fraud.

It is the latest and potentially most serious blow to Mr Rahman, many of whose functions were last week taken over by government commissioners, after an official report found he had presided over serious abuses of public money and property.

Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, described Tower Hamlets as a “rotten borough” infected by a “culture of cronyism”, and said Mr Rahman was like a “medieval monarch” who had “misused” his “unchecked” personal power to favour ethnic and political allies.

At the election in May, votes for each candidate were sorted into bundles of 50, with the tellers then counting the number of bundles to give each candidate’s total vote. During the ballot paper scrutiny, which lasted from Monday to Thursday of last week, the bundles were brought to the High Court. Several hundred of Mr Rahman’s bundles, at least a quarter of his total vote, were recounted by court officers.

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According to sources with knowledge of the proceedings, the scrutiny uncovered “significant irregularities” consistent with allegations made against the original count.

“There was a significant number of Mr Rahman’s bundles where there were fewer than 50 votes for him in the bundle, or votes for other candidates in the bundle,” said a source.

“There was also a significant number of ballot papers where a vote for John Biggs [Mr Rahman’s Labour opponent] had been crossed out and a vote for Rahman written in. Almost all the irregularities favoured Rahman.”

In July, Mr Biggs, who lost by just 3,250 votes after second preferences were counted, accused Mr Rahman’s supporters of a “considerable amount of election fraud, principally centred around the manipulation of postal votes” and said there were “very significant doubts about the integrity of the ballot”.

The election petition, by a cross-party group of six Tower Hamlets voters, also alleges that some polling stations were besieged by crowds of “hostile and threatening” supporters of Mr Rahman, with Bengali voters, especially women, intercepted outside polling stations, then “accompanied” into the polling booths and “directed how to vote”.

It says that some people arrived at the polling station to find that their votes had already been cast. Others who applied for postal votes never received them or had their ballot papers taken from them by Mr Rahman’s supporters. Numerous “ghost voters” were registered to, and voted from, addresses where they did not live. Rahman supporters smeared Mr Biggs as a racist and told Bengali voters that anyone who voted for him was “not a good Muslim”.

During May’s chaotic count, which lasted five days, candidates from parties opposed to Mr Rahman saw their votes fluctuate dramatically. Sanu Miah, a Labour council candidate in the St Peter’s ward, came top in the first count, with 2,270 votes. However, Mr Rahman demanded a recount, to take place the following day. The votes were stored at Tower Hamlets’ headquarters, Mulberry Place, overnight. In the recount Mr Miah dropped from first place to fifth, with his vote falling by a quarter to 1,722 votes.

Some Labour sources believe the first count was a genuine mistake, since there was another candidate with the same surname. However, Mr Miah alleges that the seal on one of the ballot boxes was “tampered with and opened” overnight and that “something took place with the ballot papers whilst they were held at Mulberry Place”.

The scrutiny of ballot papers is the first stage in the election petition, which is expected to proceed to a full trial in January. The judge, Richard Mawrey QC, has the power to void the election and ban Mr Rahman from office. The petitioners say that 11 of their witnesses have been intimidated or threatened.

There is no suggestion Mr Rahman has been involved in the intimidation, but he has repeatedly tried to derail the case. In his latest attempt, he has sought to have the barrister for the petitioners, Francis Hoar, removed, claiming that Mr Hoar intimidated a witness. Mr Hoar was in Birmingham at the time the supposed intimidation took place.

Mr Rahman was expelled from the Labour Party in 2010 after The Sunday Telegraph disclosed his close links with an Islamic extremist group, the IFE, but he won

re-election this year as an independent. In January, this newspaper was the first to detail serious allegations of financial irregularities against him, which involved large sums of council money being channelled to Mr Rahman’s IFE allies and friends.

This newspaper also revealed how the former Poplar Town Hall, a 10,000 sq ft office building a stone’s throw from Canary Wharf, had been sold for little more than half its true value to an unregistered company controlled by Mujibul Islam, the owner of Mr Rahman’s election campaign website. The council then granted planning permission to turn the building into a 25-bedroom hotel. The decision was taken in private by council officers, rather than by elected councillors on the planning committee, as the council constitution requires.

The two allegations formed the centrepiece of last week’s government report, commissioned by Mr Pickles, which found that hundreds of thousands of pounds had been handed out without any clear rationale or paperwork, grant-giving was skewed towards Bangladeshi organisations and officer recommendations on grants had been overruled in 81 per cent of cases.

In response, Mr Rahman claimed that the report found “no evidence of criminality or fraud”. In fact, as the report makes clear, there are ongoing police investigations into “possible fraudulent payments” by the council to nine separate organisations.

Mr Rahman also claimed last week that Poplar Town Hall was not “intentionally sold off to an associate of mine”. He said: “I was not aware of, or personally responsible for, the details of this sale. I did not get into politics to give out backhanders.”

However, emails in fact show that Mr Rahman issued instructions not to sell the building to the highest bidder but to start a “contract race” that led to it being sold to Mr Islam’s company. “My heart sinks,” said the council’s solicitor in one of the emails. He added: “This has come from the mayor.” In another email, a second officer said the decision to ignore the highest bidder and sell to Mr Islam’s company had “come from the very top”.

In the allocation of grants, the auditors found that they were strongly biased towards the west of the borough, where most of Mr Rahman’s Bengali supporters live, neglecting substantial social deprivation in other areas. Some grants were paid despite council officers’ “serious concerns” about “financial irregularities”, “conflicts of interest” and “manipulation” in the application process, with officers saying they felt that they were being “pressured unduly into providing a favourable assessment”.

Mr Rahman has also spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on promoting his re-election, with council staff employed at taxpayers’ expense to run his campaign, and the chief reporter of a local Bengali television station paid more than £1,000 a week from council funds. A newspaper promoting the mayor is distributed weekly to all households in the borough, thousands of items of direct mail are sent to voters at public expense, illegal television adverts were run on local Bengali stations and large pictures of Mr Rahman were erected throughout the borough.

During their investigation the auditors, PricewaterhouseCoopers, experienced substantial obstruction from the council, which “significantly delayed the provision of information or documentation” and “tended to pronounce allegations to be baseless and/or politically motivated without what we would consider to be an adequate investigation into the issues raised”.

Peter Golds, the leader of the Conservative group in Tower Hamlets, said: “Lutfur Rahman has for many years used allegations of racism to avoid scrutiny. The reason affairs in Tower Hamlets have been allowed to fall into this terrible state is that until now, the authorities have displayed the same sort of reluctance to investigate wrongdoing that we saw in Rotherham [regarding grooming of girls].”

Mr Rahman has denied all fault and claimed Mr Pickles’s intervention was driven by “a political establishment furious that my administration continues to embarrass it.” He declined to comment on the findings of the election scrutiny.

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