Pro-Brexit Leave.EU group fined £70,000 for breaching referendum spending rules
Pro-Brexit campaign group Leave.EU has been hit with a £70,000 fine for breaching campaign funding rules during the EU referendum.
A probe by the Electoral Commission watchdog found that the group - founded by insurance billionaire Arron Banks - failed to declare at least £77,380 of spending in the run-up to the vote.
That means it bust the £700,000 cap on spending by third party groups by at least 10%, and the Commission said the "unlawful over-spend may well have been considerably higher than that".
However, the watchdog found no evidence that the pro-Brexit group made use of the controversial US data firm Cambridge Analytica, concluding that "the relationship did not develop beyond initial scoping work".
According to the probe, Leave.EU inaccurately declared three loans it received from Mr Banks, and did not include services by a separate American strategy firm Goddard Gunster in its spending returns "despite a proportion of them having been used during Leave.EU’s referendum campaign".
The Commission also found that the campaign group failed to provide invoices for 97 payments totalling more than £80,000. A senior member of the campaign group has also been reported to the Metropolitan Police because the watchdog said it had "reasonable grounds to suspect" they had committed criminal offences.
Bob Posner, the Electoral Commission's director of political finance, said campaign finance rules were put in place "to ensure transparency and public confidence in our democratic processes".
He added: "It is therefore disappointing that Leave.EU, a key player in the EU referendum, was unable to abide by these rules.
"Leave.EU exceeded its spending limit and failed to declare its funding and its spending correctly. These are serious offences. The level of fine we have imposed has been constrained by the cap on the Commission’s fines.”
Responding to the watchdog's finding, the campaign group went on the offensive, with an extraordinary statement that accused one member of the commission of being a "political whore".
Mr Banks said: “The Electoral Commission is a ‘Blairite Swamp Creation’ packed full of establishment ‘Remoaners’ that couldn’t quite make it to the House of Lords, but managed to get their noses in the trough via appointment to public bodies like the Electoral Commission."
He added: "The EC went big game fishing and found a few ‘aged’ dead sardines on the beach. So much for the big conspiracy! What a shambles, we will see them in court."
Footnotes accompanying the Leave.EU statement personally targeted members of the Commission for criticism, accusing one of holding an "anti-Trump Twitter account", while dismissing another as an "Ex-Pro-EU Tory, Labour and SDP MP... the ultimate political whore!"