The Charity Commission has begun an investigation into potential financial mismanagement at a wildlife conservation foundation that appointed the prime minister’s partner, Carrie Symonds, to a top corporate role.
The voluntary sector watchdog said it had opened a statutory inquiry into the charity, The Aspinall Foundation. It is believed the inquiry will focus on possible trustee conflicts of interest and possible misuse of charitable resources.
The timing of the inquiry will be embarrassing for Symonds, a noted animal lover and former Conservative party spin doctor, whose appointment to the foundation as head of communications was announced just two months ago.
The charity is chaired by Damian Aspinall, the casino-owner and socialite, and its board of trustees includes members of the prominent Goldsmith and Aspinall families.
The commission opened a pre-inquiry regulatory compliance case into the charity in November with the co-operation of trustees. After identifying “further questions regarding the charity’s governance”, it has now decided to escalate its involvement to identify any possible misconduct, mismanagement, or risk to the charity.
The commission is keen to stress that the opening of an inquiry is not a finding of wrongdoing; a statutory inquiry is its most serious form of investigation, undertaken only where it is seriously concerned that a charity is at risk of wrongdoing and abuse.
Where the commission concludes serious wrongdoing has taken place it has powers to remove trustees from the board, take over the running of the charity, or even wind up the charity.
A separate statutory inquiry has also been announced into the management of Howlett’s Wild Animal Trust, which is also chaired by Aspinall, and whose trustees include Aspinall’s daughter Tansy. The charity runs Port Lympne and Howletts wildlife parks in Kent.
A spokesman for The Aspinall Foundation said: “The Aspinall Foundation remains firmly committed to its ethical and legal duties as a charitable body. Our trustees will continue to work openly and transparently with the Charity Commission to ensure best practice governance and compliance.”
The foundation is understood to have commissioned an independent internal governance review internal last autumn.
Welcoming Symonds to the foundation in January, Aspinall told the Sunday Telegraph: “Carrie takes up her new role at an exciting time for the foundation, and we are delighted to have someone of her calibre on the team.”
The matters being investigated by the commission pre-date Symonds’ appointment as an employee at the foundation, and there is no suggestion she is subject to their investigations.
The Aspinall Foundation, which promotes animal conservation, was set up by John Aspinall, the gambler, zoo owner and friend of Lord Lucan and Sir James Goldsmith, the late financier and founder of the short-lived UK Referendum party in the mid 1990s.
Zac Goldsmith, a UK government environment minister, is a former trustee. He stepped down in August 2019, several months before the commission first contacted the charity with its concerns. His younger brother, the financier Ben Goldsmith, is a trustee.
The commission undertook 67 statutory inquiries in 2019-20, a period in which it completed two high-profile investigations into Oxfam e Save the Children. A six-year-old statutory inquiry into Kids Company has yet to make a report.