The League Against Cruel Sports has described a Times article accusing it of spending a £3.5m legacy on pay rises for staff as a "shameful, politically motivated and unfounded attack".
The Times dedicated part of its front page today to claims that the animal welfare charity went on a "spending spree" after receiving a £3.5m bequest from the millionaire industrialist Stan Hales in 2013, including giving all of its staff a minimum 10 per cent backdated pay rise.
It also criticised the Charity Commission for not taking more seriously unspecified complaints about the league that were brought to it by a whistleblower.
But a spokeswoman for the League Against Cruel Sports said the contention that the charity had misspent Hales’s legacy donation was "malicious nonsense". "The Times story is a mishmash of exaggerations, half-truths and claims that are plainly incorrect," she said in a statement. "The story is a shameful, politically motivated and unfounded attack referring to a legacy bequest of £3.5m, which we are alleged to have wasted – but the truth is we haven’t spent any of it yet."
The Times reported that the league gave its entire staff a backdated 10 per cent pay rise after receiving the donation from Hales and it had seen internal papers showing that parts of the legacy were used to cover the organisation’s spending deficits. Before the donation arrived, it said, the former chief executive Joe Duckworth, who left the charity last year, had been unsure whether there was enough money to pay staff wages for the following month.
But the league spokeswoman said the donation had arrived in instalments, the last of which was received in January. "We are now deciding how to spend the money in the most effective way possible," she said.
She confirmed that league staff were given a pay rise in 2014 but said this was the first they had received in three years and none of Hales’s legacy was used for this purpose. She said the charity’s accountants had said the charity was never at risk of not being able to pay staff salaries.
The Times also reported that a whistleblower at the league had offered to show the Charity Commission a series of internal emails, invoices, payroll documents and trustee meeting minutes showing suspected "serious non-compliance" by the charity, but the regulator declined to examine this, saying that responsibility for the spending of charity funds rested with the trustees. It criticised the commission in its editorial for not taking the complaint seriously.
The newspaper also said that two league employees who raised concerns about the charity were dismissed, and two former staff members who resigned last year – Michael Stephenson, the former director of campaigns, and Dawn Varley, the former director of marketing and fundraising – also left because they were worried about how the charity was run.
The league’s spokeswoman said it was "absolutely wrong" to suggest that any individual was dismissed or faced detrimental treatment for whistleblowing. "This is categorically untrue," she said.
She said that one permanent member of staff and one staff member on a fixed-term contract had raised some concerns with the charity’s trustees and the contracted staff member stopped working for the charity because their contract came to an end and their position was discontinued.
The concerns raised related to "minor policy matters", she said.
She added: "Charities are being targeted in certain parts of the media at the moment, potentially as an attempted repeal of the hunting act is on the cards, so our supporters and anyone who looks closely at this will understand what this story is really about – trying to discredit opponents of hunting."
Varley, who left the league last year to become the lead consultant at the charity database consultancy Purple Vision, declined to comment on her reasons for leaving.
The Charity Commission was unable to comment in time for Third Sector's deadline.