This is the blog of British investigative journalist Jason Lewis.
It features articles from my time as Investigations Editor of the Sunday Telegraph and Whitehall and Security Editor of the Mail on Sunday.
I specialise in writing on intelligence and security matters, human and civil rights and the activities of the British State.
Monday, 24 October 2011
Second Defence Minister faces questions over links with Liam Fox’s best man
A second Conservative minister is facing scrutiny over his involvement with Adam Werritty, Liam Fox’s best man, whose activities cost the Defence Secretary his job.
A Sunday Telegraph investigation has established there are much closer links between Mr Werritty and Lord Astor of Hever, the Under Secretary of State for Defence than had been realised.
Lord Astor was actually a trustee of the charity, Atlantic Bridge, which employed Mr Werritty and paid for him to travel the world alongside Dr Fox.
The peer, it can be revealed, is also closely connected to several of the individuals who funded the charity and with some of those who continued secretly to pay for Mr Werritty’s activities after it was wound up.
The investigation raises questions over whether Lord Astor knew how Mr Werritty was apparently presenting himself as Dr Fox’s adviser, knew who he was meeting, and knew that Mr Werritty was spending money from Pargav, the company funded by secret donors, on lavish travel and tailoring.
Last night, critics said Lord Astor had to disclose exactly what he knew about Mr Werritty. John Mann, a Labour MP, said: “It seems a second government minister, Lord Astor, has questions to answer about his involvement with Adam Werritty and what he knew about Mr Werritty’s activities.
“There is a basic lack of transparency here and the official investigation needs to be broadened to get to the bottom of what was really going on.”
Lord Astor, 65, risked being found in breach of charity law by allowing Atlantic Bridge to operate as a political organisation and failing to keep proper records of how the charity was run.
The peer, whose second wife, Lady Elizabeth, 61, recently modelled for an advertising campaign selling deodorant, is a member of a historic political dynasty and a hereditary peer who served as a Life Guards officer in Malaysia and Northern Ireland.
He was brought up at Hever Castle in Kent, which the family sold after he succeeded his father to become the third Baron Astor of Hever.
He had been a trustee of Atlantic Bridge since it was founded in 2003, but stepped down two months before the conclusion of an investigation by the Charity Commission.
As a charity, the organisation was able to avoid paying tax on its activities, and Lord Astor, as a trustee, had been legally responsible for ensuring it complied with charity rules that allowed this. But Atlantic Bridge closed after it was warned its political activities would breach charity law.
The Charity Commission said the organisation, which promoted the special relationship between Britain and America, “may lead members of the public to call into question its independence from party politics”.
It would have been ordered to close but it was dissolved shortly before the criticisms were published.
It also criticised the trustees for failing to keep proper records about how the charity was run.
Mr Werritty had been Atlantic Bridge’s only employee and it paid him more than £90,000 in wages and expenses. The chief executive of its American sister organisation, Atlantic Bridge Inc, Amanda Bowman, has claimed it “did nothing” and was a “shell game” – a confidence trick.
Lord Astor, who is the defence department’s spokesman in the House of Lords, was a trustee of the organisation for at least six years and was legally responsible for all its activities, alongside its chairman, Dr Fox, and two others, Prof Patrick Minford, an economist, and Andrew Dunlop, a lobbyist.
Lord Astor and Dr Fox resigned as trustees after the general election in May 2010.
Mr Werritty then set up Pargav, a company whose donors were promised that their identities would be kept secret.
The disclosure of his use of its money to pay for first class travel, expensive entertainment and a visit to a lap-dancing bar angered the donors.
Dr Fox was forced to quit his Cabinet post ten days ago after admitting errors of judgment in mixing his professional and personal loyalties over his involvement with Mr Werritty, and was later ruled to have breached the ministerial code of conduct by Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary.
Sir Gus’s investigation only said Mr Werritty and Lord Astor had “occasional social contact with Mr Werritty; contact as a result of their previous involvement with the Atlantic Bridge; and contact in passing when visiting Bahrain in December 2010”.
In fact Lord Astor, a regular visitor to the Gulf State, attended a security conference alongside Dr Fox during which he also met Mr Werritty.
Earlier this year, Lord Astor returned to the Gulf state, and caused controversy after comments were attributed to him that said Britain was backing the actions of the government of Bahrain when they used force to put down democracy protests leaving scores dead.
Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, the eldest son of King Hamad, met Lord Astor last February following days of violence in the Gulf state. Lord Astor has close ties with Bahrain, a key military ally of Britain, and last year disclosed that he had attended the Gulf state’s Formula 1 Grand Prix as a guest of its royal family.
The controversy stemmed from a statement released by Bell Pottinger, the public relations firm headed by Lord Bell, who was an adviser to the former prime minister, Baroness Thatcher, who was also patron of Atlantic Bridge.
The statement, issued on behalf of Bahrain’s government, suggested Lord Astor had praised the national dialogue launched by the king.
It read: “The UK backs all initiatives taken by the kingdom’s leadership to safeguard the country from extremism and internal division, promote national unity and protect the legitimate ruling system advocated by the Bahraini people.”
Within hours British officials said this was an inaccurate representation of the conversation and sought a clarification from Bahrain.
Last night, a Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “Lord Astor emphasised the UK’s firm support for the Bahraini government’s peaceful management of the protests at this time and our readiness to help his Royal Highness the Crown Prince to start a national dialogue, including by encouraging all groups to participate.” At the time, Lord Bell denied his agency was at fault. He said: “We don’t create the messages. We don’t create the policies. We communicate them.”
Lord Bell also represents the hedge fund boss Michael Hintze, who has given more than £1 million in donations to the Conservative Party and was the main backer of Atlantic Bridge, giving around £104,000.
It can also be disclosed that Lord Astor is a friend of another of those who funded Mr Werritty’s activities since the closure of Atlantic Bridge.
Stephen Crouch, a businessman who runs the Iraq Research Group (IRG), paid Mr Werritty £20,000 to act as a consultant.
Mr Werritty is understood to have provided introductions for IRG, which is involved in setting up contracts between the Iraqi government and British businesses. He is believed to have introduced clients with expertise in the energy business. IRG has no involvement with defence contracts.
Mr Werritty and Mr Crouch, a former Tory party constituency chairman, are members of The Carlton Club, a Conservative social club. They are said to have met each other socially around two years ago, but only began a business relationship this year.
Last week, Mr Crouch was understood to be out of the country and was not available for comment.
Last night, a Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “Lord Astor was involved with Atlantic Bridge and met Adam Werritty though his work with that organisation.
“When Lord Astor became a Government minister he removed himself from Atlantic Bridge as it wasn’t appropriate for him to continue.”
A spokesman for The Charity Commission said that after a review by Atlantic Bridge and a meeting with the commission, the trustees of the charity said they intended to wind-up the organisation.