Former shadow Northern Ireland minister asks elections watchdog to investigate DUP Brexit dark money

Former Northern Ireland frontbencher joins cross-party MPs calling for ‘full investigation’ into Richard Cook and the controversial £435,000 DUP Brexit donation.

Richard Cook, chair of the secretive group that channelled £435,000 to the DUP, is interviewed at his home by Channel 4's Alex Thomson. Image used under Fair Use: Channel 4. All rights reserved.

Owen Smith, the former Shadow Northern Ireland secretary, has asked the Electoral Commission to open an investigation into Richard Cook, the man behind the Constitutional Research Council (CRC), a secretive group that funnelled £435,000 to the DUP for Brexit. The call comes after openDemocracy revealed fresh concerns about Mr Cook’s business dealings.

In a letter sent to Northern Ireland Electoral Commission Friday, Smith urges the elections regulator to investigate Cook, the CRC and the DUP donation.

"This individual, Richard Cook – and his organisation, the CRC – clearly has a blatant disregard for the rules of electoral law. Therefore it is in the public interest that all new information on this disturbing donation is fully investigated,” the former shadow Northern Ireland minister wrote.

Separately, SNP MP Brendan O’Hara has also written to the Electoral Commission, calling for the watchdog to publish evidence of any due diligence that was conducted on the source of the £435,000 donation.

"The least the Electoral Commission can do is to provide reassurance to the public that no stone has been left unturned and that no lead has been left unexplored in confirming the veracity of this massive donation,” said O’Hara.

Last weekend an openDemocracy investigation revealed that Cook’s waste management company had been involved in shipping in illegal waste, leaving an international trail of regulatory concern, legal action and debt stretching from India to California.

The DUP, which props up Theresa May’s government, is set to play a crucial role in the outcome of Brexit in the Commons. But the source of the £435,000 given to the DUP just weeks before the 2016 referendum - revealed by openDemocracy  remains clouded in mystery due to donor secrecy laws then in force in Northern Ireland.

The DUP donation was made through the Constitutional Research Council (CRC), a secretive group whose chair and only known member is Cook, a Glasgow-based businessman and former Scottish Conservative vice-chairman.

Both Cook and the DUP have refused to say where the £435,000 came from. Under British electoral law political parties need to know the source of all donations, but last year DUP treasurer Gregory Campbell said that it was not his party’s responsibility to check out Cook or the CRC.

The Electoral Commission fined the CRC for failing to declare the DUP donation, saying the group "had no reasonable excuse for these failings". But the elections watchdog has so far refused to launch a full investigation into Cook or the CRC.

Owen Smith said: "openDemocracy's latest revelations raise serious questions about Richard Cook's business dealings and the £435,000 given to the DUP to campaign for Brexit which the Electoral Commission needs to fully investigate.

“Even if you have assurances from Mr Cook that the source of the funding is legitimate, use of the Commission’s full resources and powers should be used to verify this. And if rules have been broken, then this is a clear occasion when public action by the commission is needed.”

Brendan O’Hara MP also told openDemocracy that it was time for the Electoral Commission to investigate Cook and the DUP donation.

"I have written to the CEO of the Electoral Commission asking that he publish all the due diligence carried out by the Commission on the £435,000 paid to the DUP by the Constitutional Research Council (CRC) during the Brexit referendum,” said O’Hara.

"Recently the Electoral Commission declared the money to have come from “permissible sources”, yet there has been no public scrutiny whatsoever of where this money came from, and I suspect that the CRC knowingly channelled money through the DUP precisely in order to avoid public scrutiny.”

O’Hara is a member of the influential Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee’s investigation into disinformation and ‘fake news’. The DCMS committee has also written to Cook about the controversial £435,000 DUP Brexit donation.

Cook claimed that his response to the DCMS committee had been “lost”, but openDemocracy recently revealed that he did subsequently reply to the committee chair, Conservative MP Damian Collins, in what has been described by sources close to the committee as “a less than conciliatory manner”.

Cook recently appeared in the WhatsApp message group of the European Research Group, the hardline group of Conservative MPs pushing for a no deal Brexit. The CRC also donated money to the ERG.

Speaking to BBC Radio Scotland in the wake of openDemocracy’s revelations, Scottish Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw also called on Cook to say where the DUP money had come from but stopped of short of saying he would ask the former Tory general election candidate himself.

The bulk of the DUP donation, £282,000, was spent on a wraparound advert in the Metro, a free newspaper that does not circulate in Northern Ireland. Investigative journalists at BBC Northern Ireland last year revealed that the Metro ad was booked by Richard Cook, and not the DUP.

The Good Law Project, founded by Jolyon Maugham QC, is seeking a judicial review of the Electoral Commission over its decision not to investigate the DUP donation. Maugham argues that because Cook placed the advert directly himself, the DUP ‘donation’ ought to be counted as expenditure by the CRC in the same way that a controversial ‘gift’ by Vote Leave to the 23-year old fashion student Grimes was later counted as expenditure. Both Vote Leave and Grimes were subsequently fined and referred to the police over “illegal donations”.

Reacting to openDemocracy’s recent revelations, Maugham said: "You look at Cook's history and you can't help but think 'What does someone have to do, who do they have to be, to cause the Electoral Commission to take an interest'?"

An Electoral Commission spokesperson said: “The Commission continues to be prohibited by law from commenting on donations made before July 2017 relating to Northern Ireland recipients. We are therefore unable to provide more complete information about the steps we took to fulfil our regulatory duty in any particular case. What we can say, however, is that we fulfil this duty to the highest standard".

Richard Cook's lawyer says he denies any wrongdoing. Peter Watson said that while his client would not respond in detail, any claims suggesting wrongdoing by his former waste management company DDR were baseless and actionable.

Mr Cook has previously told the Sunday Herald: “The CRC is regulated by the Electoral Commission. We operate solely in the UK. We accept donations only from eligible UK donors. We donate solely to permissible UK entities.”

The DUP said the party has been “open and transparent” about the CRC donation.

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