When Carrie Symonds was welcomed to her job at the charity for the conservation of the Aspinall Foundation in January, her new boss said it had come at an “exciting time” for the organization. Symonds, Damian Aspinall said, would be a “great asset to us.”
Coverage The appointment of Boris Johnson’s fiancée as head of communications focused on her well-publicized love of animals, useful given the foundation’s charitable mission. Supervises Howletts and the Port Lympne Wildlife Parks in Kent, home to endangered alien species such as rhinos, elephants, gorillas and cheetahs, which are poised to return to the wild in Africa.
What Aspinall, the president of the foundation, knew at the time, although it is unclear whether Symonds knew, was that the trustees of the foundation and its sister charity Howletts Wild Animals Trust, which he also chairs, had been cooperating privately with the Charity Commission for months on a number of issues raised by the watchdog regarding possible misuse of charity funds.
This week, the commission dramatically escalated that process and launched a legal investigation – his most serious level of investigation – into what he said were “serious concerns about … governance and financial management” at both charities. These investigations are not an indication of irregularities, he emphasized; likewise, according to commission orientation, “are not taken lightly.”
The Aspinall Foundation can be pleased to have the advice of Symonds, who is considered one of the most powerful people in UK politics. His partner, the prime minister, is also a fan: he visited Howletts with Aspinall in 2019. “We need organizations like the Aspinall Foundation to protect, conserve and restore,” he said. later wrote. “He is British, pioneer and deserves support.”
The investigation is the latest chapter in the colorful history of the Aspinall, Goldsmith and Birley families, united by marriage and friendships that stretch back more than half a century. They are all powerful, well connected and fabulously wealthy, with ties to the Conservative Party and shared interests in animal welfare and environmental issues. Family members have dominated the small boards of directors of the two charities.
Zac Goldsmith, the Minister of the Environment, who was awarded a noble title by his ally Johnson after losing his MP seat in December 2019, was a trustee of the Aspinall Foundation until August 2019. His brother Ben Goldsmith, a conservative donor that sits on the board of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is a trustee of Aspinall.
His half-brother and Old Etonian partner Robin Birley, nightclub owner and Ukip supporter who donated £ 20,000 to Johnson’s conservative party leadership campaign, he has been a trustee of the Aspinall Foundation for a decade. Damian Aspinall’s daughter, Tansy Aspinall, is a trustee of both charities.
The Aspinall Foundation was created by Damian Aspinall’s father, John Aspinall, a gaming magnate, member of the Mayfair group of the 1960s and a close associate of Lord Lucan and the controversial financier and anti-EU activist Sir James Goldsmith, father of Zac and Ben. John Aspinall created Howletts as a private zoo in 1957. A few years later, Robin Birley was attacked by a tiger there, suffering severe facial injuries.
The Charity Commission’s focus is on what it calls “concerns about managing conflicts of interest and related party transactions” at the two charities. It does not specify what they are, but they can include a series of financial arrangements, the details of which are hidden in the latest accounts of the charities. They include:
Renting the Howletts Mansion, an opulent 30-room farmhouse owned by the foundation, to charitable millionaire president Damian Aspinall for the use of him and his family for £ 2,500 a month (2018: £ 2,900 to month) – little more than renting a five-bedroom house in nearby Canterbury. Aspinall has also received loans from the foundation.
Payments of £ 12,500 in 2019 to Aspinall’s wife, Victoria, the foundation creative director, for “interior design services” (he was paid £ 50,000 in 2018). Aspinall’s stepmother Sarah Aspinall received a £ 30,000 pension from the Howletts charity (2018: £ 32,000), apparently for her previous role as head gardening. His son Amos Courage was until recently a trustee of Howletts.
The Aspinall Foundation issued a statement this week saying it was “firmly committed to its ethical and legal duties as a charitable entity. Our trustees will continue to work openly and transparently with the Charity Commission to ensure governance and adherence to best practices. ”He said he would not comment further until the commission reported, likely next year.
Charities by law must show that what they do is for public benefit and does not result in more than “incidental personal gain”. They receive tax breaks on most types of income, as long as they can show that the money is being used for charitable purposes. The commission can examine, according to a charity expert, whether the Aspinall Foundation blurred the line between family and public benefit, and whether the trustees exercised sufficient oversight.
Trustees are likely to incur lengthy, intrusive, and potentially costly scrutiny by commission investigators. “You jump when they say you jump,” said a former commissioner. If investigators find wrongdoing, they have powers to ban trustees from charity boards, appoint the commission’s own trustees, or even shut down the charity.
The commission has recently emphasized the high standards required of trustees, cracking down on organizations where it believes that mismanagement has undermined public trust in charities, regardless of their good works or intentions. The adjudication of Aspinall’s charities will be a politically sensitive task for the next commission chairman. That £ 62,000 a year post, currently unfilled, is in the gift of the Johnson government.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism