The Government is considering sending inspectors to investigate a London borough following allegations of mismanagement by its elected mayor.
A BBC Panorama programme due to be broadcast last night alleged that Lutfur Rahman, the Bangladeshi mayor of Tower Hamlets, more than doubled funding recommended by officials for some charities benefiting the Bengali community.
Opponents of Mr Rahman said they believed the grants were an attempt to influence voters.
Mr Rahman, an independent who became the country’s first Muslim directly elected mayor in 2010, denied the claims and accused Panorama of presenting a skewed picture of his record. He is standing for re-election in May.
But last night the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, criticised the mayoral administration in the east London borough, which covers some of London’s wealthiest areas adjacent to the City, and some of its poorest, and raised the possibility of an investigation.
In a statement, Mr Pickles said: “There is a worrying pattern of divisive community politics and mismanagement of council staff and resources by the mayoral administration in Tower Hamlets.
“I will be carefully examining the evidence provided by Panorama’s thorough investigation and will consider the appropriate next steps, including the case for exercising the legal powers available to me.” Mr Pickles added: “I have powers to put in an inspector to look at the way that the council’s been run.”
The Panorama investigation found that officers at the council had proposed grants worth £1.5m for Bengali and Somali groups within the borough. But a review of grants approved by Mr Rahman and his office conducted by the BBC found that funding to such organisations was more than double that level at £3.6m.
But Mr Rahman, a solicitor who was raised in Tower Hamlets, strongly denied he was seeking to benefit from the grants, adding that they had been scrutinised by council members as part of a “vigorous process”. He said: “It’s absolutely untrue. My principle all along has been that we will distribute the money to as many organisations as possible… because they benefit the community.”
The mayor, who said that no criticism had been made of his funding decisions in audit of inspection reports, in turn accused the BBC of being “Islamophobic”. In a further statement, he said: “I believe the programme is being used for political campaigning and electioneering purposes just weeks before local and mayoral elections in May.”
The BBC said it “emphatically rejects” the suggestion that the programme “was either politically or racially motivated”.
Mr Rahman has proved a controversial figure as mayor; he was elected after he was dumped as Labour’s official candidate over alleged links with an Islamist group.
Earlier this year he announced he was giving up his £72-per-day chauffeur-driven Mercedes after a TV documentary team filmed it being used to drop off his washing.
Scotland Yard confirmed last week that it is investigating claims that bogus housing officials were campaigning on Mr Rahman’s behalf. There is no suggestion that the mayor had any knowledge of the alleged conduct. Claims of undeclared campaign donations have also been found to be unproven or with no case for Mr Rahman to answer.