GUY ADAMS: No wonder Carrie Symonds was so desperate to downplay the gravity of the first probe

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They say an Englishman’s house is his castle. But in the case of Damian Aspinall, Carrie Symonds’ environmentally conscious socialite boss, that “ castle ” doesn’t really belong to him.

Howletts House, a Grade II listed 30-room Palladian mansion in Kent, is instead owned by the Aspinall Foundation, a charity founded by his late father John (a gambling buddy of Lord Lucan) in 1984 to run his personal zoo.

The high-profile nonprofit that operates the Howletts and Port Lympne wildlife parks and recently hired Miss Symonds as its communications director has allowed Damian for years to occupy his trophy property for what appears to be a peppercorn rental.

In 2019, the last year for which records are available, he paid just £ 2,500 a month to live on the biscuit-colored stately pile, which was built in 1787.

That’s less than the going rate for a five-bedroom dorm in nearby Canterbury. It’s also about 40 percent less than the £ 4,000 a month Mr Aspinall paid back in 2016.

Public Relations Crisis: Carrie Symonds with Boris Johnson

Public Relations Crisis: Carrie Symonds with Boris Johnson

The lofty goals of the Aspinall Foundation, as registered with the Charities Commission, revolve around conservation work and public education. They do not include the provision of subsidized housing for already very wealthy people.

In addition, under normal circumstances, charities are prohibited from taking advantage of or otherwise taking advantage of their role.

Still, Mr. Aspinall, who owes his cheap rent of this sprawling mansion to the foundation, is also one of the foundation’s custodians. In fact, he is the chairman of the board of directors.

These facts, revealed by the Daily Mail following the January appointment of Miss Symonds, are central to the regulator’s dramatic decision to launch a legal investigation into his cases.

Ominously, to all concerned, the conflict of interest over Howletts House is just the tip of an iceberg. The probe will look at many highly erratic monetary links between the charity, which regularly solicits donations from the public, and the Aspinall family.

Among them is why Damian, who has a child with actress Donna Air and has been in a relationship with models Naomi Campbell, Elle Macpherson, Normandie Keith and Lisa Butcher, and singer Lisa Barbuscia, has been quietly allowed to use his charity’s treasury as a kind of personal piggy bank.

Damian Aspinall and Victoria Aspinall with the cheetah Saba, February 3, 2020

Damian Aspinall and Victoria Aspinall with the cheetah Saba, February 3, 2020

Damian Aspinall and Victoria Aspinall with the cheetah Saba, February 3, 2020

At the end of the last financial year, he was accounted for £ 113,122 to the foundation. The year before, his debt to charity was £ 88,783; in 2017 it was £ 58,783; in 2016 it was £ 28,484. He owed £ 19,208 in 2015 and £ 47,655 in 2014. The charity declines to say why it provided this credit to Mr. Aspinall, or whether interest was charged to him.

Nor does she want to comment on how the debt has been built up, other than that it is not ‘loans’ and has been paid off in full. It seems unlikely that this explanation will flush to the committee.

Charities, which enjoy generous tax breaks, are generally not supposed to use their resources to provide credit (especially interest-free) to wealthy people, just as they are not usually expected to offer them cheap accommodation in stately homes.

Then there’s the small matter of tens of thousands of pounds that the foundation has shoveled into the designer bags of Mr. Aspinall’s wife, Victoria.

It has paid her £ 62,000 in recent years for ‘interior design services’, apparently for overseeing the renovation of rental properties.

What qualified Victoria for this role is unclear: At the time she got the job, she was not an established professional interior designer. Companies House records show that her design firm was founded in November 2019, more than a year after she joined the foundation’s payroll.

It’s also not clear why Victoria, as the wife of a supposedly hugely wealthy socialite (Aspinall’s chain of mega casinos, Aspers, made £ 9 million in profit last year), chose not to run the charity work for free.

Again, these expenditures appear to be in violation of charity law, which dictates that dependents of trustees cannot usually take advantage of their role.

A sister charity, the Howletts Wild Animal Trust, which is also the subject of a legal investigation, chooses to pay Damian’s wealthy 75-year-old stepmother Lady Sarah a pension of £ 30,000 a year.

Pictured: Howletts.  The lofty goals of the Aspinall Foundation, as registered with the Charities Commission, revolve around conservation work and public education.  They do not include the provision of subsidized housing for already very wealthy people

Pictured: Howletts.  The lofty goals of the Aspinall Foundation, as registered with the Charities Commission, revolve around conservation work and public education.  They do not include the provision of subsidized housing for already very wealthy people

Pictured: Howletts. The lofty goals of the Aspinall Foundation, as registered with the Charities Commission, revolve around conservation work and public education. They do not include the provision of subsidized housing for already very wealthy people

The charity says it is giving her this ‘annuity’ for her previous service as ‘head gardener for many years’. But it refuses to say how long she has been in the job or if she has paid on a retirement plan during that time. It’s also unclear whether she was ever an actual employee.

If Lady Sarah, who now divides her time between South Africa and Chelsea, lived in Howletts House when she was the ‘head gardener’, she would of course have spent some of her time tending what was basically the garden. used to be. from her own home.

It is a real hornet’s nest. And while charities are believed to be run by independent trustees, who have a legal duty to guard against inappropriateness and conflicts of interest, the Aspinall Foundation board instead consists almost entirely of close relatives of Damian.

In addition to the man himself, the members are his adult daughter Tansy (by socialite ex-wife Louise Sebag-Montefiore) and Ben Goldsmith, the son of his old gambling buddy Sir Jimmy Goldsmith. Then there is Ben’s half-brother, Robin Birley, who owns the Mayfair private club 5 Hertford Street; and Charles Filmer, who once worked as Jimmy Goldsmith’s PA and now runs an asset management company called Alvarium, who last year charged £ 65,000 for accounting services.

The only member with no known ties to Mr. Aspinall and the Conservatives is Maarten Petermann, a hedge fund manager and former JP Morgan banker. The Howletts Wild Animal Trust, meanwhile, has only 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 step-brother.

Curiously, the charity committee’s guidelines for “ recommended good practice ” state that a trustee should be on the board of a charity for only nine years. Still, Damian has been there since the early 2000s and in 2011 Messrs Birley and Filmer joined. It all looks a bit too cozy. And most importantly, given Miss Symonds’ involvement, there is a political tinge to the ‘chumocracy’ at the helm of the foundation.

Ben Goldsmith has made significant donations to the Conservatives and was recently appointed director of Defra by Michael Gove. Mr Birley donated £ 260,000 to Boris Johnson’s offer.

A recently departed trustee is Zac Goldsmith, a close friend and mentor of Miss Symonds who left the board in August 2019, shortly before being elevated to the House of Lords and taking a cabinet job from Boris Johnson.

This connection of what one newspaper called the Conservative Party’s “ niche Brexiteering conservation wing ” explains why Carrie’s appointment as the foundation’s communications director has at least a dash of patronage, especially since the job was not publicly advertised.

Her salary (reportedly an “average to high five”) certainly comes at a useful time for our first family’s personal finances. After a costly divorce and the suspension of his lucrative career in journalism and public speaking, Mr. Johnson is rumored to be feeling the squeeze.

The couple have been annoyed by questions about how to afford the lavish renovation of their Downing Street apartments, which was overseen by Miss Symonds. The question of whether political patrons paid the bill is currently the subject of an Election Commission investigation.

Supporters will no doubt argue that Miss Symonds, who previously headed the Tory party PR, got the job entirely on her merits. They will also point out that the financial shenanigans at the center of the Charity Commission investigation predate her arrival, announced in January.

Still, Miss Symonds has played a key role in her attempt to downplay the scandal. In early February, shortly after the regulator announced that there was a “ compliance case ” involving the foundation, she made a statement to the Mail claiming that such an investigation was “ commonplace during routine statutory audits. ”

In fact, such cases are extremely rare, with only 1.5 percent of Britain’s 168,000 charities facing a compliance case last year. And only 67 organizations faced the humiliation of a full-blown legal investigation, of the kind announced yesterday.

Miss Symonds was out of the office yesterday and left her colleagues to deal with the fallout. How she will turn the latest development in the Aspinall Foundation’s colorful history remains to be seen.