Pressure grows on Ruth Davidson to answer for 'trail of dark money leading straight to her door'

SNP demands Davidson explain dark money following investigations into the Tory-donating Scottish Unionist Association Trust

SCOTTISH TORY LEADER Ruth Davidson faces growing calls from the SNP to “be honest with the electorate” about large donations to the party from a mysterious trust, which may not meet the necessary criteria for donor organisations set down by UK electoral law.

Today [2 July], SNP MP Mhairi Black said in a statement released by the SNP: “The Scottish Tories are up to their necks in dark money and it’s time the Electoral Commission zeroed in on these shady practices. The question for Davidson now is, will she come clean?

“Or will she instead continue to accept dodgy donations with one hand, while shaking the hands of constituents with the other?”

This follows a similar challenge issued over the weekend by SNP MP Martin Docherty-Hughes, who said that Davidson “can no longer operate in the shadows and avoid the growing calls for clarity over the trail of dark money leading straight to her door.”

Last week, an investigation by BBC Spotlight Northern Ireland revealed that Richard Cook, the chairman of the Constitutional Research Council and former vice-chairman of the Conservative Party in Scotland, was behind a previously mysterious £435,000 donation to the Democratic Unionist Party during the 2016 EU referendum, and has “a trail of involvement in illegal activity and foreign money.” This followed an extensive investigation on OpenDemocracy by the journalists Adam Ramsay and Peter Geoghegan.

The BBC investigation also accused Cook of allegedly shipping illegal tyre waste to India in 2009, presenting fake documents to authorities, and leaving a shipping company with an unpaid bill of over £1m.

The Scottish investigative journalism platform the Ferret has also highlighted evidence which suggests that the Scottish Unionist Association Trust (SUAT) - which has no fixed address or known current trustees, and has donated £319,000 to the Scottish Conservatives – may not meet the criteria required for them to be ruled as an ‘exempt trust’. The SUAT are now reported to be under examination by the Electoral Commission.

“The Scottish Tories are up to their necks in dark money and it’s time the Electoral Commission zeroed in on these shady practices. The question for Davidson now is, will she come clean?” SNP MP Mhairi Black

In light of these reports, SNP MP Pete Wishart has written to the election watchdog, requesting a full probe into the SUAT, and calling for a full debate about the practices of Cook, commenting that “the trail of dodgy, dark money running through certain political parties in the UK can no longer go unaddressed”.

Commenting further, Martin Docherty-Hughes said: “Ruth Davidson has serious questions to answer over these revelations, as it seems her party has been bankrolled by murky donations.

“She can no longer operate in the shadows and avoid the growing calls for clarity over the trail of dark money leading straight to her door.

“These findings raise some serious concerns, and she must now make clear what checks the Scottish Tory party had in place before accepting such large donations? Is Richard Cook the ultimate source of the donations set out, and is he still a member of the Scottish Tory party? And, whether or not the party still has a policy of accepting donations from the Constitutional Research Council?

“I urge Ms Davidson to be honest with the electorate about who funds her party, and why it has chosen to obscure donations in this way.”

According to the Ferret, the Scottish Tories said: “Everything donated from the SUAT to the Scottish Conservatives has been properly declared”.

According to Electoral Commission data, the SUAT gave £318,876.66 to the Tories between 9 April 2001 and 28 February 2018.

“The fact that the Scottish Unionist Association Trust rents out an office to the Scottish Conservatives also raises a bigger question about whether any gifts in kind are being given. With the current information available, we simply don’t know.” Unlock Democracy director Alexandra Runswick

Specific Tory politicians who have accepted SUAT donations include Scottish Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw, as well as Scottish MPs David Duguid and Douglas Ross. Both Ross and Duguid have responded to the revelations by claiming that these donations were permitted under election spending rules, and that the central party had ensured that SUAT was a permissible donor.

The campaign group Unlock Democracy have argued that unincorporated organisations such as the SUAT are often created by political donors to “exploit loopholes in electoral law” and to “shield themselves from scrutiny”.

Due to the fact that SUAT is not a registered entity with Companies House, the Financial Conduct Authority of OSCR, the Scottish charity watchdog, there is no information publicly available about the figures who manage the organisation, nor are there any public accounts detailing who the donors are or what assets it holds.

The only individual to be publicly listed as an SUAT trustee is former Scottish Tory deputy chairwoman and current board member of the UK party Kim Donald.

READMORE: SNP MSP slams Ruth Davidson over dinner-for-cash with Russian donor

The Ferret has also revealed that, as of 2014, numerous Scottish Tories were SUAT trustees in the past, including former Scottish Tory chairman and Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Peter Duncan, former Scottish Tory executive, Robert Miller-Bakewell, and Alison Polson, secretary of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Association.

Under Electoral Commission rules, unincorporated organisations that donated more that £25,000 within one calendar year are required to register with the watchdog and report any gifts in excess of £7500.

However, the Ferret has reported that other records list SUAT as a limited liability partnership and include the address of the Tories’ Glasgow office, while the deeds to building suggest that the trust shares an address with a Glasgow accountancy firm.

Campaign group Unlock Democracy’s director, Alexandra Runswick, commented in the Ferret: “The fact that the Scottish Unionist Association Trust rents out an office to the Scottish Conservatives also raises a bigger question about whether any gifts in kind are being given.

“With the current information available, we simply don’t know.”

Picture courtesy of the Scottish Parliament