Greenwich Council’s most senior officer has said her job was to “protect” a councillor accused of owning property while living in a council home from a media inquiry, a fraud trial heard today.
Debbie Warren, the council’s chief executive, told a jury at Inner London Crown Court that she met Tonia Ashikodi three times on 17 May 2018, when the Glyndon ward councillor told her that her father Tony had transferred property into her name three weeks previously, and that she had only just found out.
She told the court that Ashikodi had raised the issue because she was concerned that the homes should be included on her declaration of interests, which all councillors have to submit. It was only later, she said, that Ashikodi said she was concerned about her council tenancy.
When a journalist contacted the council that same day asking if Ashikodi had been questioned under caution about the properties, Warren said she had been told this was not the case, and she sought to “protect Tonia from the press enquiry”.
Ashikodi, 30, is charged with two counts of fraud by false representation in applications to Greenwich Council for housing in October 2008 and May 2012, which she denies. With Tony, 50, she is also charged with committing an act intended to pervert the course of justice in May 2018. Both daughter and father deny this charge.
The second day of evidence in the trial also heard that council leader Danny Thorpe was involved in the response to a press inquiry about a possible investigation into Ashikodi which had come from Skwawkbox, a left-wing news website known for its enthusiastic backing of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
It also heard that Ashikodi was being investigated at the time, but for a different matter, and that another councillor was suspected of a breach of data in relation to Ashikodi’s housing arrangements.
Land Registry question
Warren told the court that Ashikodi had come to her on 17 May 2018 after hearing from a fellow councillor, Averil Lekau, that the council checked the Land Registry details of all newly-elected councillors. This conversation took place shortly after a council election when both Ashikodi and Lekau had been re-elected. “She went on to say that Cllr Lekau suggested Tonia see me to understand this,” Warren said.
Under questioning from Robert Fitt, for the prosecution, Warren said that Ashikodi had then been picked up by her father. “Out of the blue, after Cllr Ashikodi recounted the conversation, she said her father had told her, ‘That’s a coincidence, I’ve been meaning to tell you that I transferred two properties into your name.’”
Warren said she had interrupted a meeting with Berkeley Homes to meet Ashikodi, who “was quite anxious, and clearly wanted to speak to me, there and then”. Warren told the court that Ashikodi said her father had transferred the properties because of his “failing health”, and the chief executive advised her to speak to the council’s head of legal, John Scarborough.
It was not true, Warren added, that councillors’ property holdings were checked with the Land Registry. “It is for a member to determine,” she said.
The two met again later in the afternoon when Warren was alerted to a press enquiry from the website Skwawkbox, she said, adding that it was asking if Ashikodi had been or was about to be interviewed under caution. “Skwawkbox is interested in public bodies generally,” she added. The story was not true, she said.
Warren said that she met the council’s deputy chief executive and communications boss Katrina Delaney and the council leader Danny Thorpe to discuss the issue, and Ashikodi arrived and told “the same story that she had told me a few hours before”.
Warren agreed with Adam Gersch, counsel for Tony Ashikodi, that at this stage the issue was about Ashikodi’s declaration of interests rather than a criminal matter. “She had come to me with her problem, and we were at the stage of trying to resolve that with Tonia. At this stage, I wasn’t particularly alarmed from what I had heard, it was more about protecting Tonia from the press enquiry.”
‘Very anxious state’
Shortly afterwards, Ashikodi turned up at Warren’s office again, the chief executive told the prosecution counsel. “She was just outside the door – as I opened the door, she was there. She was in a very anxious state, clearly very worried, and she wanted to talk about her council tenancy on this occasion.”
She added: “I was able to say to Tonia that provided the properties were not in her ownership when she applied for her council home, she should be okay.” Warren added that the council’s director of housing, Jamie Carswell, was able to confirm this.
“After Jamie left, she was still very anxious and agitated. I spent some time trying to calm her down and reassure her and as the properties had been transferred three weeks ago, she would be okay. She had spoken to her father and they would be speaking to her solicitors and they would bring in a paper pertaining to some kind of trust arrangement surrounding the two properties concerned.
“It was muddled, she was very, very anxious, almost distressed, I would say.”
Carswell also gave evidence, telling the jury that as he had been told she had only recently come into possession of the properties, “there would be no suggestion that there would have been any wrongdoing at the point of applying for the tenancy, that was merely relying on my understanding of housing law”.
He added that he had later “reviewed and reminded myself of what our tenancy agreement says, it says during an entire tenancy you are expected not to own any properties. But that wasn’t an issue we discussed at that time.”
Katrina Delaney was the third senior council officer to give evidence. She said Ashikodi was “an energetic councillor who really wanted to get involved. She challenged us in a really positive way as to how we might do things differently, things like Black History Month.”
Under questioning from Fitt, she went through what happened when the enquiry about Ashikodi came from Skwawkbox: “The press manager alerted me to an enquiry from an outlet we were not aware of, who asked if it was true there was a fraud investigation into Cllr Ashikodi.
“I forwarded it to Debbie Warren, and the leader-designate of the council, Danny Thorpe. The leader is the cabinet member responsible for communications. All press enquiries are seen by the leader of the council. Most are put past the chief executive.”
Delaney said the question posed by the Skwawkbox reporter was whether or not Ashikodi was to be interviewed under caution. Delaney said she had asked the council’s fraud team and they said no interview was scheduled. She added that Thorpe called Ashikodi on his mobile and asked her to join them, and that Ashikodi said she had not been asked to an interview.
The next day, the Skwawkbox reporter contacted Delaney again, with the same question, and she forwarded the enquiry to Ashikodi. Delaney said she spoke to Ashikodi on the phone, was told that the properties had been transferred by her father “because he had a kidney illness and was putting his affairs in order”.
“She told me that her dad was going to get a copy of the deed or some kind of legal document that day, it was costing him £500 and that was going to clear her name. And that was it. You could hear her children were in the back seat of the car; she said she was only in this to serve the public and her dad said this is what people do to you – it was a convivial chat.”
‘Breach of data’
Under questioning from Tonia Ashikodi’s counsel, Notu Hoon, Delaney said she had made further enquiries with the fraud team and discovered there was an “entirely confidential” investigation going on – into potential overpayment of council tax benefit – but Ashikodi was not due to be called in for interview.
Asked if she passed this information on to Warren and Thorpe, Delaney said “no”. She added that she told Skwawkbox once again that there was no interview planned.
Pressed by Gersch, acting for Tony Ashikodi, Delaney said the only way such information would come to the attention of the press would be if “somebody leaked it”.
“One of the things you became aware of that there was an investigation into a potential data breach involving a councillor who was not fond of Ms Ashikodi,” Gersch said.
“I have no knowledge of who is fond of who, I just know that she was a member of the council,” Delaney said. “That’s not to say she breached data. Tonia said her father believed an officer had breached data.”
Asked by Fitt, for the prosecution, about a councillor with the initials “AL” mentioned in her notes, Delaney confirmed it was Averil Lekau. “In what way was Averil Lekau mentioned in the same breath as a data breach?”, asked Fitt.
“It was Averil Lekau who had originally spoken to Tonia on Thursday, we assumed someone must have told Averil something so the data breach could have involved Averil. The journalist had raised it and Averil had raised it.”
The jury also heard from Elizabeth Osibo, a principal housing allocations manager, who said that the council did not conduct checks to see if potential tenants owned any second properties.
The trial, before Judge Benedict Kelleher, continues on Thursday.
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