Brexit whistleblower Shahmir Sanni calls for probe as lawyers claim Vote Leave broke election spending rules

Exclusive: ‘Lawyers say there are reasonable grounds to investigate or even prosecute This has become about protecting the integrity of democracy and protecting our systems’

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
,Maya Yagoda
Thursday 29 November 2018 18:00 GMT
Vote Leave whistleblower Shahmir Sanni calls for criminal investigation in electoral spending allegations

The whistleblower at the heart of the scandal surrounding the main Brexit campaign has called for a police investigation into allegations that the group breached electoral spending rules.

Former activist Shahmir Sanni said he believed the referendum result had been “tainted” by allegations that Vote Leave had flouted spending limits by making a £625,000 donation to the pro-Brexit youth group BeLeave shortly before the 2016 vote.

Lawyers acting for several whistleblowers have argued there is a case to prosecute Vote Leave for allegedly using the smaller outfit to get around the £7m spending limit, which is put in place to prevent campaigns with wealthy supporters from gaining an unfair advantage in elections.

In a 50-page submission to the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Matrix Chambers said the donation – which was then paid to digital firm AggregateIQ by BeLeave – should have been declared as part of Vote Leave’s expenditure, which could have taken it above the limit.

It comes as the Electoral Commission probes possible spending breaches, and as a third whistleblower came forward with new allegations about how closely the campaigns were linked.

Vote Leave figures have repeatedly denied all the allegations and said the £625,000 donations was within spending rules, which allow donations to independent campaigns.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Mr Sanni said: “How can you sit there and pretend like it’s all “Remoaning” or it’s all a lie, or it’s just me trying to find my 15 minutes of fame or it’s just me trying to get attention, when you have lawyers and QCs and the committee saying there are reasonable grounds to investigate or even prosecute – now they are saying there are reasonable grounds to prosecute.

“So, it’s not a joke anymore, it’s not politics anymore. This has actually become about protecting the integrity of democracy and protecting our systems.”

Mr Sanni and Christopher Wylie, another whistleblower embroiled in the Facebook data scandal, have passed a dossier to the Electoral Commission, which they claim points to close coordination between Vote Leave and BeLeave.

Asked if he would welcome a criminal probe, Mr Sanni said: “Yes, of course I would, because I was there. I know that we were coordinated, I know what happened.”

While being a committed Leave voter, he said the allegations “taint the result”, adding: “The entire scandal, in my view, delegitimises the vote.”

Mr Sanni also declared he would never have spoken out if he had known the levels of abuse to which he would be subjected.

He said: “It hasn’t been fun. If I had known the consequences, if I had known it would be this bad in terms of the abuse, the vitriol, the outing – if I am being frank – I probably wouldn’t have come forward.”

Mr Sanni described his distress at discovering his sexuality was being discussed in the media because of his former relationship with Stephen Parkinson, a senior Vote Leave official who now works at Downing Street.

He accused Mr Parkinson of knowing his family in Pakistan were unaware of his sexuality when Mr Parkinson released the statement saying the two men had been in a relationship.

Mr Sanni added: “For me, even doing after all of that, after doing everything I’ve sort of come forward with, I’ve thrown away the career I’ve built for the past two years, the network I’ve thrown away for the past two years. I’ve thrown away everything, I’ve thrown away the one part of my life that I had kept for myself and not made a decision to disclose it to my family members.

“I’ve been stripped of nearly everything that I have built over the past few years, and even since my childhood.”

Theresa May stood by her aide, who denied outing Mr Sanni. Mr Parkinson said it was impossible for the relationship to have “remained private once Shahmir decided to publicise his false claims in this way”.

Chris Wylie: The Brexit outcome 'could have been different' had there not been 'cheating'

It comes as a third whistleblower, Mark Gettleson, came forward with new claims that he was paid by Vote Leave to do work for the youth group.

Lawyers acting for Mr Gettleson confirmed that he provided web design and communications services for Vote Leave between February and April 2016, and created the BeLeave campaign concept.

“His evidence demonstrates how closely linked the Vote Leave and BeLeave campaigns were during the period he worked there, and leading counsel relied on this evidence in coming to conclusions that there are grounds to suspect overspending offences in the referendum,” said Tamsin Allen, partner at Bindmans LLP.

The Fair Vote project has published parts of Mr Gettleson’s evidence on its website.

Legal opinion submitted to the culture committee’s inquiry into fake news said: “We consider that there is a prima facie case that ... electoral offences were committed by Vote Leave in the EU referendum campaign and that these require urgent investigation so that consideration can be given to whether to refer the case to the Crown Prosecution Service for a decision on whether to prosecute.”

It also said there was “there are strong grounds to infer that Vote Leave was involved in the decision by which the AIQ payments were made ... that it was aware of the scope of the work which would be conducted pursuant to those payments, and that the payments were incurred by Vote Leave to promote the outcome for which Vote Leave campaigned, and/or in concert with BeLeave”.

Vote Leave has denied any allegations of wrongdoing and of illegal coordination with other groups.

Brexiteer cabinet ministers Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have both spoken out in defence of Vote Leave, with Mr Johnson describing the claims as “utterly ludicrous”. He said Vote Leave “won fair and square – and legally”.

An Electoral Commission spokesman said there was an ongoing investigation and declined to comment further.

Representatives for former Vote Leave officials and for Mr Parkinson were contacted for comment but did not respond at the time of publication.

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