Carrie Symonds charity hit by official spending probe: Regulator is to investigate finances at zoo


Watchdogs have launched a dramatic inquiry into Carrie Symonds’ zoo charity.

The Charity Commission is carrying out a statutory probe – its most serious type of investigation – into spending at the Aspinall Foundation following revelations in the Daily Mail.

It will examine allegations of financial mismanagement at the charity, which hired Miss Symonds earlier this year.

Boris Johnson’s fiancée took on the job of director of communications to provide the couple with a dual income.

Working from the flat she shares with the Prime Minister and their son Wilfred, the former Tory spin doctor was branded ‘a huge asset’ when she joined the foundation.

Her role, which is said to have come with a ‘medium to high five-figure’ salary, was expected to focus on conservation schemes.

But yesterday Miss Symonds’ office was engulfed in a public relations crisis as the commission, the sector’s official regulator, announced its probe into the charity and its sister organisation, the Howletts Wild Animal Trust.

The charity’s chairman is socialite Damian Aspinall and trustees include Ben Goldsmith, the Tory donor, and his half-brother Robin Birley, whose father Mark founded Mayfair nightclub Annabel’s.

The alleged mismanagement happened before the arrival of Miss Symonds.

The Charity Commission is carrying out a statutory probe – its most serious type of investigation – into spending at the Aspinall Foundation following revelations in the Daily Mail. Pictured: Miss Symonds at the zoo

The Charity Commission is carrying out a statutory probe – its most serious type of investigation – into spending at the Aspinall Foundation following revelations in the Daily Mail. Pictured: Miss Symonds at the zoo

The Mail has revealed concerns over the Aspinall Foundation’s use of charitable funds to:

  • Help Mr Aspinall live for just £2,500 a month in a 30-room pile in rural Kent;
  • Funnel hundreds of thousands of pounds to his family;
  • Pay £62,000 to his wife Victoria for ‘interior design services’;
  • Let Mr Aspinall borrow heavily from charity funds, running up a £113,000 debt.

The Howletts Wild Animal Trust, which runs two parks in Kent, also gave Mr Aspinall’s stepmother a pension of £30,000 a year.

Howletts Wild Animal Park was set up as a private zoo near Canterbury in 1957 by eccentric society naturalist and Lord Lucan’s gambling partner John Aspinall, father of Damian.

A second zoo was established at Port Lympne near Folkestone.

Under John Aspinall, the zoos were known for their unorthodox style – including close personal relationships between staff and animals.

A number of keepers were killed by the animals they managed.

Boris Johnson's fiancée took on the job of director of communications to provide the couple (pictured in October 2019) with a dual income

Boris Johnson’s fiancée took on the job of director of communications to provide the couple (pictured in October 2019) with a dual income

But the zoos were acclaimed for their conservation work, including introducing captive-bred endangered animals into the wild.

Yesterday the Charity Commission announced two statutory inquiries into the Aspinall Foundation and Howletts Wild Animal Trust, in both cases ‘over serious concerns about the charity’s governance and financial management’.

A spokesman added: ‘It is our most serious type of investigation.’

It said it would examine whether the trustees, who are obliged to scrutinise financial affairs, ‘have complied with and fulfilled their duties and responsibilities under charity law’.

The commission said the trustees had been ‘fully cooperating’ with the probes, which began as minor ‘regulatory compliance cases’ but were yesterday dramatically upgraded to statutory inquiries.

This means the commission has sweeping powers to seize records and interrogate potential witnesses.

Its role is to protect charities and safeguard money donated by the public.

In the worst case scenario, it could disqualify the board of trustees and impose an independent management team to take over.

The charity played down the potential consequences yesterday, by suggesting it would use the commission’s recommendations to guide the board.

As the crisis engulfed the foundation, its director of communications was ‘out of the office’.

Miss Symonds went on maternity leave with the birth of Wilfred on April 29 last year. Messages to the PR chief, whose return to work was announced in January and who was issuing Aspinall press statements in February, were directed to a junior member of staff.

The charity's chairman is socialite Damian Aspinall (pictured with Victoria Fisher in 2016) and trustees include Ben Goldsmith, the Tory donor, and his half-brother Robin Birley, whose father Mark founded Mayfair nightclub Annabel's

The charity’s chairman is socialite Damian Aspinall (pictured with Victoria Fisher in 2016) and trustees include Ben Goldsmith, the Tory donor, and his half-brother Robin Birley, whose father Mark founded Mayfair nightclub Annabel’s

Two years ago, Mr Johnson visited Howletts Wild Animal Park where he was introduced to cheetahs Saba and Nairo.

Former trustees of the charity include Ben Goldsmith’s brother Lord (Zac) Goldsmith, a close friend of Miss Symonds who is rumoured to have been asked to help fund the recent Downing Street decoration.

The commission said its enquiries started in December 2019, in the case of Howletts, and in July 2020 for the Aspinall Foundation.

The Mail understands a draft press release was prepared making clear that the issues ‘pre-dated’ Miss Symonds, but all mention of her was cut out of the final version issued yesterday.

The spokesman declined to comment on this matter but said ‘our concerns pre-date her appointment’.

The commission oversees 168,000 charities. Last year, only 67 attracted statutory inquiries.

There was no comment from either Mr Goldsmith or Mr Birley.

The Aspinall Foundation and Howletts Wild Animal Trust issued similar statements saying they ‘remain firmly committed to ethical and legal duties as a charitable body’.

They added: ‘Our trustees will continue to work openly and transparently with the Charity Commission to ensure best practice governance and compliance.’

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