If they lift the carpet for chametz, will they find anything else?

We write this blog as two lawyers, Brian is a barrister and I am a solicitor. We are also deputies representing our own organisations at the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Here in the UK there has been, for the last month or so, a considerable amount of coverage in the media about certain events surrounding the departure of the CEO from the Jewish Leadership Council in 2013.  It has been reported by the Jewish Chronicle that far from leaving due to ill health, the CEO allegedly left due to allegations of financial wrongdoing.

Whilst there has been considerable coverage of this cover-up by the Jewish Leadership Council, there has been little coverage in relation to the current conduct of the JLC in its response to the revelations.

By way of background the report and accounts filed at Companies House for the year ending 31 December 2013 made reference to Risk Management and stated that Relevant control procedures, responsibilities and future actions have ensured that monitoring of risk is well embedded within the operations and procedures of the charity. The message was loud and clear that all was well. The message the following year was largely the same; not the slightest suggestion that there had been any problem with the charity’s finances.

If there were problems with the finances, the JLC have made no mention of the possible inaccurate reporting to Companies House and how they intend to deal with what would now be inaccurate statutory reports.  Instead, they have stated they are taking decisive action by arranging their own independent inquiry. It seems odd that it is the JLC which is commissioning the inquiry when, since it is a charity, any investigation would normally be carried out by the charity commission.

We are aware that at the time the JLC had advice. Sir Mick Davis explains on the JLC website that “As soon as the Board of Trustees became aware of the issues it acted immediately and in accordance with the advice it received”. We assume that this advice was not from a lawyer or accountant experienced in dealing with charities, since any such professional would surely have insisted that the risk of any missing monies should be reported immediately to the Charity Commission and the police.  It is odd that this advice, – and the identity of the person or organisation providing it – has not been made public, if only to support the claim that the JLC were doing their best at the time.

There is no doubting the commitment of the JLC trustees or the fact that much good work has been done by them and their organisation. It is impossible though, to escape the conclusion that the JLC are attempting to put their own gloss on the cover up. Their failure to disclose the damning audit report leads to the only conclusion that there are more revelations to emerge, which could be more damaging to the charity. Or not. Without seeing the full report we will never know.

The JLC have reported that their proposed independent inquiry has yet to be approved by the charity commission. We believe that this approval will not be forthcoming. There have been reports in the press about additional, criminal investigations into the Jewish Labour Movement, an organisation of which the former CEO of the JLC was until recently its chair. Those investigations may spread to other areas, or they may not. What is clear though is that the JLC cannot and should not try to orchestrate any inquiry of its own until all criminal investigations which may impact upon any civil inquiry have been concluded.

It would be wholly unfair for the former CEO to have to listen to contributors making statements to a civil inquiry which may concern him and might impact upon a criminal investigation. Such statements would surely be prejudicial to any criminal inquiry and subsequent prosecution should one take place. Since this proposed inquiry would have no status other than having been instigated by the JLC it is difficult to see what purpose it would serve, other than perhaps to suggest that the JLC is better able to police itself than the charity commission.

Some commentators have said that on balance the good outweighs the bad and we shouldn’t be too bothered about the cover up, since any money which might have gone missing was made good.  This wholly misses the point. If there has been a breach of Jewish business ethics on this scale it reflects on all of the community.  There cannot be a message sent to our Synagogues and communal organisations that says as long as you make good and cover up any financial discrepancies it will be alright.

There also cannot be a message which says it is better to cover up and pay off difficulties in an organisation that be open about them.  We know from personal business experience how important it is to be able to trust references provided by former employers in relation to prospective candidates for employment.  The true facts in this case have yet to fully emerge and it is not clear why that is the case.  It is odd that the details of the contractual terms of the CEO leaving the JLC have not been made public.  There are any number of reasons for this, including current legal or regulatory communications with the JLC or perhaps a non-disclosure agreement signed by the parties at the time.

There is no doubt that in principle, no organisation should allow malpractice to be pushed under the carpet so that future employers do not know the truth of why a prospective candidate left their previous employ.

Further, a significant number of trustees present in 2013 are still holding office now.  Perhaps this is appropriate, perhaps not.  We do not believe though, that for the JLC to have anything to do with an inquiry into its own dealings can be described as transparent.  It must surely be the remit of the Charity Commission to deal with any inquiry, which presumably could not be concluded until after any related criminal investigation has finished.

On the subject of investigation, if a charity employee gives grounds for concerns as serious as those set out in the Jewish Chronicle, then that charity should hold at the time their own inquiry consistent with the principles of employment law.  Not only has this appeared not to have happened, but the community apparently were misled over the reasons for the CEO’s departure.  In other words, we were told all was well when in fact the JLC knew better.

There has been a suggestion that the JLC might co-ordinate the celebration of Israel’s 70th anniversary.  We do not see how this is appropriate given the current outstanding issues over its governance, and further the fact that it is not a democratically accountable organisation.  It is strange that an unelected body should claim to Government that it represents the views of the Anglo-Jewish community, when in reality the views it represents are its own.

There is a democratically accountable organisation in the UK and it is the Board of Deputies.  It draws representation from most of the Jewish community in the UK today, and all its plenary sessions are televised.  There is no doubt of its transparency of decision making, which as those who watch the debates will see, can be heated.  It is surely that organisation that should co-ordinate any celebrations and for the JLC to make a contribution to those celebrations should it wishes.

It is telling that for all of the statements made to the press by the JLC, their own statements on their website and the latest article in the Manchester Jewish Telegraph, there has been no apology.  Nothing.  There have been explanations about advice, about what is going to be done and particularly the proposed inquiry.  Nothing though about an apology to the community which it claims to represent.  An apology doesn’t have to be an admission or a concession.  It just has to be recognition that many people have been upset by what appears to have been happening in the JLC and that many members of the community feel let down.

The JLC should recognise now what has been the case for some time.  Whilst it undoubtedly does and will continue to do much good work, it is neither a representative nor accountable body and it cannot claim that it represents the views of the Anglo-Jewish community to that community or to Government.  As for transparency, it should hand over all inquiries to the charity commission and the police, which it failed to do in 2013.

Robert Festenstein

Brian Mark

About the Author
Robert Festenstein is a solicitor based in Manchester with considerable experience in Court actions. He is active in representing groups opposing BDS and fighting the increase in anti-Semitism, particularly amongst the left-wing in the UK.
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