Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Chapter from my book on the allegations!

  • 24. Blip
    The phone rang at 7.30 in the morning. The caller said he was a Detective Inspector from West Midlands Police.
    'Are you at home?'
    'No. I'm on my way to Brussels. What's this about?'
    'We'll call you back in five minutes.'
    'But –'
    'We'll call you back.' They rang off.
    I was exasperated. If there'd been a burglary why didn't he say so? I often drive to and from Brussels and I had spent the night in a hotel near the British end of the Channel Tunnel. I needed to get my car onto the train in the next hour. It was February 2012, still dark, and I was in a hurry.
    He called back. 'We have a warrant to search your house.'
    'What? Why?'
    'I can't tell you that. You need to be here.'
    'I'm supposed to be in Brussels.'
    'If you have to go to Brussels for your work, then so be it. But I would advise you to come home.'
    'Please tell me why?'
    'I'm not prepared to tell you on the phone.'
    'I've got to make a value judgement here. To carry on with my duties in Brussels or turn back. Is this about a driving with a bald tyre, or murder? Where along that line?'
    He hesitated. 'It's concerned with your mandate.'
    That meant my term as an MEP. 'Right,' I said. 'I’ll be there.'
    On the way home I phoned my solicitor and asked him to call the police. I did not have to go to my house. We would meet at his office and go to the police together, voluntarily.
    We walked into the police station. The caller had not informed me that they had two other warrants: one to search my office and another to arrest several members of my staff. Nor that I would be placed under arrest for conspiracy to defraud.
    The accusations were that:
    I had misclaimed travel allowances. (KERCHING! I knew where this was coming from.)
    I was paying bonuses to my staff that they were expected to pay back.
    It is now November 2013, twenty-one months since these events, and although my staff were released without a stain on their characters, I am still on police bail.
    Here's what actually happened. In July or August, 2009, when I became a UKIP MEP, a man started working for me in UKIP's Birmingham office. Let's call him ‘Faustus’.
    I took him with me to Brussels that August. I'd been a Member for about six weeks and the European Parliament building had just re-opened for business after the summer break. The idea was that when I communicated with Faustus, back in Birmingham, he'd be familiar with where I was working, as well as key individuals I was working with, and would understand the process of presenting data to the EU. He would be dealing with staff contracts, infrastructure, and travel - as well as acting as liaison between me and my constituents and advising me on the political situation at home.
    But within the first few months, I began to see him as a bit of an idiot. As my political advisor, at a time when I was in conflict with UKIP's Party leadership, he kept on urging me to leave UKIP and 'start my own party.' Well thanks, I thought. Fantasy wasn't really a big help at the time. But worse than this, he was disruptive. Two other members of staff were undermined by him and left. Finally, he proved unable to do even basic research or grasp a political point. After a series of clumsy errors, knowing how exasperated I was, he resigned before I could sack him. It was an acrimonious departure and he immediately started work for another UKIP MEP.
    I became non-inscrit in the New Year. Around the time of the General Election in May 2010, my team and I found that documents, including itemised phone bills, were missing from the Birmingham office. I was very uncomfortable about this. I have some well known friends – household names. I'd had meetings with senior politicians who for a variety of reasons would not want it to be known that I was talking to them. Records of these discussions were confidential.
    I could not be sure exactly when these documents had disappeared. But this was paperwork that Faustus had worked on and it did occur to me that he could have taken it when he left, or later, since my office had still been in the UKIP building after he'd gone to work for someone else. I reported the theft to the police at the time, but was told that there was insufficient evidence to press charges. It is an odd area of law; some of the missing data had been on the computer (and electronic information doesn't come under the Theft Act) but there were also physical records, such as telephone bills.
    Then I discovered that yet more documents had gone. The police agreed that there was circumstantial evidence, but not enough to arrest Faustus. By this time some of the data was being put up on the internet – stuff that had been stolen as hard copy, including the employment contract of his successor.
    August, 2010, was my first opportunity to take stock. It had been a tumultuous first year in office, with a lot of Human Rights work, a new office to set up, and mobile surgeries to organise. There had been many weeks of sixteen-hour days. But now, just as we were about to start our important referendum campaign, I did something I had not found time to do before. One of the things I'd learned in America was that you should occasionally sit at your employees' desks. So in August, 2010, this is what I did.
    You take a look around the office. You see things in the way that they see things. It gives you a different perspective. Look at the screen in front of you. What are they working on? How do they do it? I noticed something slightly wrong about the expenses’ claims in the system and when I got back to Brussels I told the relevant authorities. A lot of the data I needed to show them was among the material that had already been stolen, but I could see that my claims for travel to and from Brussels and/or Strasbourg didn't look right. It wasn't the dates or amounts so much as the method of travel. I drive a lot; putting the car on the Eurostar, you're across the Channel in half an hour. I do my best thinking when I drive. I come up with ideas.
    I tried to find out when this had started to go wrong and asked the staff. It turned out to be a problem with the system that Faustus had put in place. He had been incompetent. I did not assume that what he'd done was deliberate; it was just riddled with errors, inaccuracies - it made me regret that I hadn't decide to sack him before he resigned.
    I have, and never had, the remotest impulse to defraud the EU. Why would I? All you have to do to make money, legally, as an MEP is nothing. You could have your ‘office’ in the broom cupboard of your house, produce no magazines, newsletters or anything else. You could employ your spouse at whatever salary you deem appropriate. The current secretarial allowance is £215,000 a year and you can give it to one person.  I use it to rent an office in Birmingham and employ a staff of eight.
    As an MEP it seems you can claim a large salary, and many perks, yet do only as much, or as little, as you choose. Below is an excerpt from a newspaper article published in the Independent on 20 September, 2012, which is a scathing critique of UKIP’s performance.
    ‘Between them, the party’s 12 MEPs have tabled no reports, 11 have tabled no opinions, nine have signed no written declarations or motions, and seven have tabled no amendments to reports, ranking them at the bottom of the pile out of all 753 MEPs. Or at least that is what the Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies claims, after poring over the figures. “In Brussels the UKIP representatives reduce our country’s reputation to that of a laughing stock. The nearest thing to a UKIP MEP you are likely to see is an empty seat,” he said.
    It could be argued that UKIP MEPs have better things to do than hang around in Brussels, since their mission is to get Britain out of the EU – an argument that would stand up better if they had not trousered £11.5 million in salaries, staffing and office costs. And that is not counting their expenses.
    If I wanted to get rich the MEP's salary is an easy and legal way to do so. Instead I regularly break the EU working Hours directive by putting in 70 hours a week and £30,000 of my net salary is fed back into funding my work.
    But the problem identified by my arrest was my signature at the bottom of claim forms from the late summer of 2009, my first couple of months as an MEP, when Faustus was responsible for my EU admin.  Why had I signed these forms? Because I didn't read them. I had mountains of work, heaps of paperwork – and admin is what you employ staff to do. I was na├»ve enough to trust him.
    Yet this police bail is a hell of a thing to have hanging over me. It may still be there next year when I stand again as an MEP. I have talked for hours about this with my solicitor, and decided to do nothing. I could spend around £30,000 to obtain a Judicial Review on the grounds that this is an unfair process, but if the judge declines to interfere with police work, as judges often do, then I'll attract headlines – 'MEP fails in her attempt to block fraud enquiry.' I could demand that the police either charge me or let me go; if they did decide to charge me, this too would mean headlines. Although it's likely that the case will eventually be dropped, mud sticks. It's axiomatic that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Of  course there is.
    That arrest in 2012 does not stop me from standing in the Euro-elections of 2014. But it is a big pebble to throw at me from the back of the crowd. I can only follow my solicitor's advice and carry on with my job. I am writing about it now only because it has to be acknowledged.

Nicole Sinclaire