So Carrie Symonds, does charity REALLY begin at home?, asks GUY ADAMS

So Carrie, does charity REALLY begin at home? After new boss of Boris Johnson’s partner is shown to be living in his own charity’s stately home for a tiny rent, GUY ADAMS reveals a watchdog appears to contradict her view of their official probe

When Carrie Symonds joined the staff of eco-charity The Aspinall Foundation, she was doubtless motivated by a heartfelt desire to save endangered rhinos and big cats.

There might even be opportunities, when she wasn’t toiling on the Foundation’s behalf from a flat above 10 Downing St, to visit pioneering conservation projects overseas — helping gorillas in the Congo, for example, or freshwater turtles in Madagascar.

But the career of a prime minister’s consort rarely runs smoothly (just ask Cherie Blair). 

And little more than a week after she started, Ms Symonds finds her new employer embroiled in a potentially toxic PR crisis.

The high-profile organisation, run by several well-connected Tory donors, is being investigated by the Charity Commission amid concerns about what it calls ‘financial management and wider governance’.

When Carrie Symonds (pictured with Damian Aspinall) joined the staff of eco-charity The Aspinall Foundation, she was doubtless motivated by a heartfelt desire to save endangered rhinos and big cats

That news emerged on Monday, after a Mail investigation had revealed that the non-profit Foundation allows its founder’s son, gambling tycoon Damian Aspinall, to live in a 30-room manor for a fraction of normal market rates.

We revealed that, as well as charging him rent of just £2,500 a month for Howletts mansion, a Grade II-listed Palladian pile it owns in rural Kent, the charity is shelling out large sums of money to Mr Aspinall’s wife Victoria.

She has been paid £62,000 in two years for doing ‘interior design’ work at its zoo and safari park in Kent, despite having no obvious prior experience in that field.

Ms Symonds responded to our report by suggesting that the Commission’s inquiry is all perfectly normal. 

‘The charity is not being investigated for the purposes of the Charities Act,’ she said, ‘but rather the Commission made a number of ongoing routine inquiries at the end of last year as part of its regular checks.’

Yet at the Charity Commission they are playing a different tune. In a statement, they responded: ‘To clarify, the Aspinall Foundation is subject to a regulatory compliance case. 

‘We first contacted the trustees of the Aspinall Foundation in November 2020 after we had identified concerns around the charity’s financial governance.’

Sources close to the regulator tell me that, contrary to Ms Symonds’s suggestion, its compliance cases are far from routine.

‘There are 168,000 charities in Britain and only 2,500 compliance cases a year, so the vast majority of charities go through their entire existence without facing one,’ I was told. 

‘What happened was a routine check of their accounts in November raised a number of red flags, and these concerns are now being looked at.’

It should be stressed that the existence of an inquiry is not proof of wrongdoing, and those caught up in one must be considered innocent of any impropriety unless proven otherwise.

But what is the Commission looking at? Well, it seems what the Mail uncovered on Saturday is just the tip of an iceberg.

I can reveal that the Foundation, which was founded by Mr Aspinall’s late father John, a close chum of Lord Lucan, has other financial links to Damian, along with his close friends and family.

All are highly unorthodox, given existing charity guidelines which stipulate that trustees and their dependants should never usually benefit from their relationship with a charity.

The Commission is trying to establish whether the Foundation has broken the letter or the spirit of the law, or possibly both.

The first question surely concerns Mr Aspinall, who is the chairman of its governing board. 

The career of a Prime Minister’s consort rarely runs smoothly (just ask Cherie Blair). And little more than a week after she started, Ms Symonds finds her new employer embroiled in a potentially toxic PR crisis

Besides his unusual home rental agreement, the outwardly wealthy socialite — who has a child with actress Donna Air and once dated models Naomi Campbell, Elle Macpherson, Normandie Keith and Lisa Butcher, and singer Lisa Barbuscia — has in recent years been quietly using his charity’s coffers as a sort of piggy bank.

At the end of 2019 (the last period for which records are available), the Aspinall Foundation’s accounts showed he owed it £113,122.

The previous year, he had been allowed to run up a debt of £88,783. In 2017, the figure was £58,783. In 2016, it was £28,484; in 2015, he owed £19,208 and in 2014, £47,655. 

The charity has not said why it has chosen to extend this credit to Mr Aspinall, or whether he is charged interest. 

Neither is it willing to comment on how the debts were built up, apart from insisting they are not ‘loans’ and have been completely paid off.

Be that as it may, charities — which enjoy generous tax breaks — are not generally supposed to use their resources to extend credit (especially interest-free) to wealthy people, just as they are not usually expected to provide them with cheap accommodation in a stately home. 

And Damian isn’t the only Aspinall doing quite nicely from the Foundation.

The accounts of its subsidiary The Howletts Wild Animal Trust (which runs its safari parks at Howletts and Port Lympne, also in Kent) reveal that the organisation has for years been paying his stepmother, Lady Sarah Aspinall, a pension worth £30,000 a year.

The charity apparently believes that Lady Sarah, John’s 75-year-old widow, should receive this ‘annuity’ for her prior service as its ‘head gardener for many years’.

But it refuses to say how long she worked in the job or whether she paid into a pension plan during that time. It is also unclear if she was ever an actual employee.

We have been unable to establish whether Lady Sarah was living at Howletts mansion during the time she was its ‘head gardener’. 

If so, she would of course have been spending some of her time looking after the garden of her own home.

The only public mention of her role that the Mail has found is a 2003 interview with the Telegraph, which said of her lifestyle: ‘Shuttling between Belgravia and Kent, Lady Sarah helps take care of the gardens and parks at Howletts and at Port Lympne, which Aspinall’s son Damian and half-brother James Osborne, ‘both of whom I respect greatly’, run jointly.’

The non-profit Foundation allows its founder’s son, gambling tycoon Damian Aspinall, to live in a 30-room manor for a fraction of normal market rates

It made no mention of her being paid for the privilege.

The generous-seeming pension arrangement enjoyed by Lady Aspinall — who owns a luxury flat in London but has been living in South Africa for the past year — is not one generally enjoyed by staff of the charity.

Accounts show that the Howletts Trust has 440 employees, doing the equivalent of 306 full-time roles. Last year, it contributed a total of £158,113 to their pension pots. 

That equates to £359 per employee — a sum that, were they to toil there for 40 years, would be expected to leave them a pension pot of roughly £120,000, which in turn would buy an annuity of £3,940 — or roughly an eighth of the amount Lady Sarah gets.

There is a third curious financial link between the Aspinall Foundation and one of its trustees.

For the past five years, it has been paying a company called Alvarium large sums for ‘accounting services’. 

A director of Alvarium is one Charles Filmer, a chum of Damian’s who serves on the charity’s board.

In an arrangement described in its accounts as ‘arm’s-length’, the Aspinall Foundation paid Alvarium £64,304 in 2019 and £68,542 the year before. 

In 2017, the amount was £50,649 and in 2016, £51,324. In the previous years it paid £35,311 and £29,500.

Alvarium is a Mayfair-based wealth management firm part-owned by Sheikh Jassim al-Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family, and calls itself ‘a global multi-family office, co-investment partner and merchant banking boutique’. 

Among the services it provides to clients are ‘accounting and financial modelling’.

Neither it nor the Foundation will say what specific duties it has performed in return for the £300,000 it has been paid by the charity over the past six years, although a spokesman for the company says it has a ‘trust and fiduciary’ section which ‘manages accounting and administration for foundations and charities, deals with all banking matters, provides payroll services, administration assistance for successful fundraising events, oversees projects and general administration and management tasks’.

As to why the annual fee has doubled over that period, Alvarium does not comment. 

However, the charity apparently believes ‘its fees have increased in line with growth of the Foundation’s own operations over recent years’.

Which parts of the Foundation’s operations have grown so much in that period is tricky to ascertain. 

In 2015, its income was £2.71 million and its expenditure £2.81 million. Five years later, the figures were £2.86 million and £2.85 million respectively.

As well as charging him rent of just £2,500 a month for Howletts Mansion (pictured), a Grade II-listed Palladian pile it owns in rural Kent, the charity is shelling out large sums of money to Mr Aspinall’s wife Victoria

It’s all as clear as mud. And while a normal charity would expect its affairs to be scrutinised by a board of independent trustees, the Aspinall Foundation’s six-member board is, on paper, the opposite of independent.

For it consists almost entirely of close family chums of Mr Aspinall. Besides the man himself, the members are his grown-up daughter Tansy (by socialite ex-wife Louise Sebag-Montefiore) and Ben Goldsmith, the son of his old gambling buddy Sir Jimmy Goldsmith, who has made substantial donations to the Conservatives and was recently made a director of Defra by Michael Gove.

Then there is Ben’s half-brother Robin Birley, who owns Mayfair private members’ club 5 Hertford Street and donated £260,000 to Boris Johnson’s leadership bid; and Charles Filmer, who once worked as Jimmy Goldsmith’s PA and has helped to facilitate the family’s donations to the Conservative Party.

The only member with no known links to Mr Aspinall and the Conservatives is Maarten Petermann, a hedge fund manager and former JP Morgan banker.

The Howletts Wild Animal Trust has just three trustees: Damian and Tansy Aspinall; and Amos Courage, Lady Sarah’s son from her first marriage to racing driver Piers Courage, meaning he is Damian’s stepbrother.

The Charity Commission’s ‘recommended good practice’ guidelines state that a trustee should only serve on a charity’s board for nine years. 

Yet Damian Aspinall has been there since the early 2000s, while Mr Birley and Mr Filmer joined in 2011. 

The charity did not respond when asked why they remain on the board.

While I gather that trustees regard the Aspinall Foundation’s spending as above board, and insist they have acted in the charity’s best interests, none has yet stuck their head over the parapet to properly defend it.

The only comments so far made on behalf of the trustees came via Ms Symonds, who issued a statement this week insisting: ‘The Aspinall Foundation remains firmly committed to its ethical and legal duties as a charitable body. 

‘We are extremely proud of the groundbreaking work our dedicated team continues to achieve to protect endangered species.’

She adds: ‘The trustees continue to ensure that the charity remains in constant contact with the industry regulator to establish best practice oversight, as they have done for many years without any cause for concern.’

Should the regulator’s current inquiry conclude otherwise, it will open a full statutory investigation into the Aspinall Foundation’s affairs. 

That could, in theory, end with the organisation’s charitable status being removed.

And no spin-doctor in the world — not even one based in Downing Street — could turn that into a good news story.

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