A Brexit campaigner has told Channel 4 News that Vote Leave cheated in the 2016 referendum by over-spending. But the prime minister’s political secretary says the allegations are “factually incorrect and misleading”, and outs the accuser as gay.
A whistle-blower, who says he was “outed” as gay by the Prime Minister’s political secretary in a row over cheating claims in the Brexit campaign, has claimed that the EU Referendum “wasn’t legitimate”.
In an interview with Channel 4 News, Shahmir Sanni, who helped run the BeLeave offshoot campaign, said that “people have been lied to,” adding: “I know… that Vote Leave cheated.”
He said: “Leaving the European Union, I agree with. But I don’t agree with losing what it means to be British in that process; losing what it means to follow the rules; losing what it means to be quite literally a functioning democracy.”
Theresa May’s political secretary Stephen Parkinson has been accused of “outing” Sanni yesterday after he was asked to respond to claims of cheating by Brexiteers. Parkinson says the two had been in a relationship for 18-months, which he then implies coloured his judgement of events.
Channel 4 News can also reveal that Sanni went to the Electoral Commission with two other pro-Brexit campaigning friends on Thursday with their evidence.
They told the Commission in detail why they think Vote Leave broke the law during the Referendum, and exceeded the legal spending limits.
Earlier last week their lawyers gave the Commission signed statements from the three whistle-blowers. Channel 4 News has seen a duplicate of the 46-page account prepared by two top QCs, and three thick ring-binders of supporting documents.
The cheating row centres around the links between Vote Leave and third-party campaign group BeLeave.
Under election laws, Vote Leave was only allowed to spend £7m on its campaign. But there were scores of other separate campaign groups who could each spend up to £700,000, if they registered as permitted participants.
However, spending by each of these groups had to remain truly independent, and not directed by, the main designated campaigns.
Sanni tells Channel 4 News he was initially a Vote Leave outreach volunteer. But he claimed Stephen Parkinson then assigned him to another Brexit group called BeLeave, where he worked with the group’s founder, Darren Grimes.
BeLeave was based inside the Vote Leave headquarters and Grimes was photographed holding a Vote Leave poster on the day of the Referendum.
Sanni says that he and Grimes always reported to Stephen Parkinson.
“There was no time where anything BeLeave did didn’t go through Stephen,” Sanni said. “Any sort of article that I posted or an article that I wrote, I would run it through Stephen. I would say ‘is this OK?’.”
“This was after we had become a separate organisation – I sent Stephen a draft of my speech, and said ‘Hey, what do you think?’ I sought advice, as did Darren.”
Together, they claim they worked hand in glove with Parkinson.
In the last ten days of the campaign, Vote Leave donated a total of £625,000 to Grimes, who was registered as a permitted participant. The donations went directly to Canadian data firm Aggregate IQ (AIQ).
Sanni claims that Grimes was not truly independent of Vote Leave and was not in control of how the money was spent.
He claims Grimes and BeLeave were used by Vote Leave to get around limits on how much they could legally spend. If true, they could have overspent by almost ten per cent.
Documents seen by Channel 4 News show multiple links between AIQ and Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL.
Speaking about the donation, Sanni said: “When Darren told me that it was almost £700,000, the first thing I asked was ‘OK, so can I get my, you know, some of my travel expenses refunded, reimbursed?’,” he told Channel 4 News. “I didn’t have a job, I had just come out of graduation and I was volunteering.
“So I asked for money and Darren said ‘No I don’t think we can… the only way for them to give it to us is if they give it to AIQ.’ And that’s where at first I was like oh that’s a bit odd…”
Asked whether they could have refused to spend the money on AIQ, Sanni said: “We didn’t ever feel like we had that level of control. That’s what I mean, we never felt like we had control over the or, over the organisation itself…
“We were delegated responsibilities … but in terms of sort of money, we never had a say over that. We never had control over that.”
He claimed: “In effect they used BeLeave to over-spend, and not just by a small amount… Almost two thirds of a million pounds makes all the difference and it wasn’t legal…”
“They say that it wasn’t coordinated, but it was. And so the idea that… the campaign was legitimate is false.”
Tonight, Stephen Parkinson issued a “personal statement” to Channel 4 News:
“I have seen the statements issued by Shahmir and his lawyers, and am saddened by them. They are factually incorrect and misleading. My statement to Channel 4 News and The Observer was issued in my personal capacity and was solely a response to the serious and untrue allegations made against me by Shahmir, Chris Wylie, and others.
“It would be surprising if Shahmir, Mr Wylie, or those advising them thought I would be able to defend myself against those allegations without revealing my relationship with Shahmir. Sadly, the allegations they have chosen to make are so serious that I have been compelled to do so. I cannot see how our relationship, which was ongoing at the time of the referendum and which is a material fact in the allegations being made, could have remained private once Shahmir decided to publicise his false claims in this way.
“The matters raised in tonight’s Channel 4 News programme are already with the Electoral Commission.
“At the relevant time during the referendum period, the Commission advised Vote Leave that it was permissible to make a donation in the way it proposed to do to BeLeave.
“Twice since the referendum the Commission has investigated this matter, and twice it has found no evidence of wrongdoing. A third investigation into the same issue is currently taking place.
“The Electoral Commission has not contacted me in relation to any of these inquiries, but I will of course be happy to assist in them if they wish me to do so.
“I firmly deny the allegations in the programme. I had no responsibility for digital campaigning or donations on the Vote Leave campaign, and am confident that I stayed within the law and strict spending rules at all times.”
A solicitor for Vote Leave said: “Vote Leave has twice been cleared on this matter by the Electoral Commission. There are a number of new accusations and allegations being made in what you have sent us. While many of them seem irrelevant or trivial, some are serious and potentially damaging to the reputations of those caught up in those allegations. As has been the case throughout, Vote Leave is obligated to review – to the extent it can after this long elapsed period since the referendum – all such allegations, and is doing so. We will as appropriate share any relevant findings with the Electoral Commission, again as we have always done.”
Lawyers for AggregateIQ said: “AggregateIQ is a digital advertising, web and software development company based in Canada. It is and has always been 100% Canadian owned and operated. AggregateIQ has never entered into a contract with Cambridge Analytica. AggregateIQ works in full compliance within all legal and regulatory requirements in all jurisdictions where it operates. It has never knowingly been involved in any illegal activity.
“All work AggregateIQ does for each client is kept separate. The services carried out by AggregateIQ for Vote Leave were in accordance with the instructions of Vote Leave. The services carried out for BeLeave were in accordance with the instructions of BeLeave. The accounts were kept separate at all times and there was no overlap or merging in any way.”
Darren Grimes denies all the allegations.