The mayor of Tower Hamlets has been removed from office and barred from standing again after being found guilty by an election court of corrupt practices, including using grants to the voluntary sector as bribes to gain electoral support.
Yesterday, the High Court ruled that Lutfur Rahman, the first elected mayor of the east London borough in 2010, had broken electoral law in various ways before his 2014 re-election, including misusing voluntary sector grants.
Councillor Alibor Choudhury was also found guilty of illegal practices and removed from office.
Allegations by opposition councillors that Rahman had given grants of £3.6m to Bengali and Somali groups in return for electoral support, despite recommendations that they should receive only £1.5m, were first aired in a BBC Panorama programme broadcast in March 2014.
A subsequent report prepared by the professional services firm PwC for Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, found that elected members of the council had intervened to ensure that grants were given to groups that did not meet the minimum eligibility criteria.
The report, which was cited in yesterday’s judgment, said there was a correlation between the channelling of grants into certain wards in the borough and the number of people voting for Tower Hamlets First, the party Rahman stood for, and that there was no direct correlation between levels of deprivation and the areas into which grants were being channelled.
The judgment says the court was satisfied that the conduct of Rahman and Choudhury constituted bribery under section 113 of the Representation of the People Act 1983.
The judgment says: "Was it a purpose (albeit not the only purpose) of these grants to convince the beneficiaries of the activities of the organisations concerned that the mayor was looking after their community and the continuance of this benefit depended on his being re-elected in 2014? The answer to this question is undoubtedly: yes."
A statement on Rahman’s personal website says that he "strongly denies any wrongdoing and had full confidence in the justice system, and so this result has been surprising to say the least".
It says: "We are seeking further legal advice on the matter in relation to a judicial review. A more detailed statement clarifying our response will be released shortly."
A statement posted on the Metropolitan Police Service website yesterday said: "We note the decision of the Election Commissioner and will now take time to fully consider the 200-page report. The MPS take allegations of electoral fraud and malpractice extremely seriously and will fully investigate any put to us."
The Met said last year that there was no credible evidence of criminality.
The Electoral Commission is also considering the judgment and any lessons to be learned, including potential changes to the law, according to a statement on its website.
A spokeswoman for the council said grant recipients would not have funds withdrawn because all decisions taken by the former mayor still stood. "All the third sector groups will still receive funding: it’s business as usual," she said.
Following Rahman’s removal, Deputy Mayor Oliur Rahman – no relation – has becoming acting mayor while the council arranges a new election.