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Billionaire Tory backer Lord Ashcroft accused of hiding business links to 'corrupt' islands

By Andy McSmith

Michael Ashcroft, the billionaire peer who for years bankrolled the Conservative Party, has been accused of hiding his business involvement in a Caribbean state whose government was brought down by corruption scandals.

BBC's Panorama programme alleged last night that Lord Ashcroft was secretly controlling the biggest construction company on the Turks and Caicos Islands, though he claims to have severed his link with the company in 1999.



The islands, a British overseas territory, have been under direct rule by the Foreign Office since August 2009, when the then Prime Minister, Michael Misick, became embroiled in corruption allegations. Panorama reported that one of the allegations being investigated by the police is how Mr Misick could afford a luxury home, valued at $16m, which was built in 2006 by Johnston International.



The programme stated that Lord Ashcroft announced on the London Stock Exchange in 1999 that he had sold Johnston International, and has repeatedly asserted that he has had "no interest whatsoever" in the company since that date. But Panorama showed fax messages which it said were exchanged between Lord Ashcroft and the chief executive of Johnston International, Allan Forrest.



The faxes suggest that Mr Forrest repeatedly sought and got Lord Ashcroft's instructions or advice, despite the peer's denials that he was running the company. One fax said: "Dear Michael, a short note to thank you for the salary increase. Much appreciated."



In another, written after Mr Forrest had visited Belize, where Lord Ashdown originally made his £1.1bn fortune, refers to Johnston International's parent company, Oxford Ventures. Mr Forrest wrote: "The perception in Belize is that you are still in full control of Oxford's assets (which you are of course)."



Panorama interviewed former employees of Johnston International, who lost their jobs when the firm went bust. When it collapsed, Lord Ashcroft's bank, the British Caribbean Bank, as a secured creditor, took priority over others who were owed money.



Panorama also interviewed Chris Johnson, the liquidator appointed to wind up the affairs of Oxford Ventures, which also went bust. He complained that Lord Ashcroft's bank was refusing to release the information he needed to complete the job, though the bank has said that it cannot give information to an overseas-appointed liquidator until recognised by the TCI courts, which recognition is under challenge.



The programme-makers said that "there is no suggestion that Lord Ashcroft is corrupt", but suggested that the alleged secrecy in which he has wrapped his business affairs is "hardly in keeping with the Government's demand for greater corporate transparency."



Lord Ashcroft's spokesman said yesterday: "No statement is being made because the BBC has not had the decency to tell Lord Ashcroft what is in the programme. They have been at this for two-and-a-half years and have made so many false starts on the way, who knows what they are going to do?"



Michael Ashcroft was made a life peer in 2000 on the recommendation of William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, who was then leader of the Conservative Party. The peer is believed to be one of the biggest political donors in British history, having given around £10m to the Conservatives. During William Hague's leadership, after the 1997 election defeat, he was virtually the only major funder of the Tory party.



Lord Ashcroft is suing The Independent over articles published on 19 and 20 November 2009, about the affairs of the Turks and Caicos Islands.

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