The former boss of a homelessness charity spent thousands of pounds of its money on luxury travel, meals and watches, an investigation has found
Lee Dribben, former chief executive of the Ashley Foundation, also used charity funds to buy a surveillance system, according to an inquiry by the Charity Commission.
The regulator said it had found evidence of “serious financial mismanagement” and that charity funds were used to benefit Dribben and former trustees.
The charity, registered in 1997, operates hostels and flats for homeless people in Blackburn, Blackpool and Sunderland.
The Charity Commission investigation, which started looking into the charity in August 2019, found Dribben spent more than £3,000 on a three-night trip to London, with first class travel and meals at Le Caprice and the Wolseley Hotel in Mayfair.
Charity funds were also inappropriately spent on Apple watches, flat screen televisions, a hairdryer and silk sheets, the regulator said, which Dribben claimed were gifts “for people we thought would be of help to us in the future”.
He also bought a Spymaster tracking system, which the inquiry was told was used to monitor people during contract negotiations with the charity.
The Charity Commission said this was inappropriate and that “covert activity is unacceptable” for a charity.
The investigation also found that thousands of pounds of charity funds were spent on the repair and upkeep of personal properties belonging to Dribben and his son Ashley, a former trustee.
Another former trustee, David Kam, signed blank cheques to be drawn on the charity’s bank account, meaning he could not be certain how much would be paid or to who, the regulator said.
It said former trustees sold several of the charity’s properties housing vulnerable homeless people before entering into “highly disadvantageous agreements” with a third party to manage these properties.
The regulator said current trustees have taken action, such as reacquiring the sold properties, and it is satisfied that appropriate controls are in place.
It disqualified Lee and Ashley Dribben from charity trusteeships and senior management for 15 years, and Kam, a former chairman of the charity, for 10 years.
Amy Spiller, head of investigations at the Charity Commission, said: “Our investigation found that the former trustees and CEO misused this charity and received significant unauthorised personal benefit from funds intended to help vulnerable homeless people.
“Trustees must use their charity’s funds to further the charity’s purposes and ensure there are robust financial controls in place to stop the abuse of these funds.
“I commend the current board of trustees for identifying the serious wrongdoing and initiating action to put the charity’s house in order.
“I hope that their work, and our intervention, means the charity is now able to deliver on its charitable purposes to help the homeless across Blackpool, Sunderland and Blackburn.”
Lisa Edwards, chairwoman of trustees of the Ashley Foundation, thanked the commission for its “thorough investigation” and for recognising the “diligent work” of current trustees to ensure the charity’s future.
The regulator started investigating after she and the current chief executive raised concerns.
Ms Edwards said: “The findings of the investigation are deeply distressing, but are, sadly, as we suspected. This is why we took our concerns to both the Charity Commission and Lancashire Police three years ago.
“We would like to make it clear the trustees and former CEO referred to in the commission’s inquiry report are no longer, in any way, connected to the Ashley Foundation.”
She said it had been a “difficult period” but the charity is looking forward to continuing providing services for homeless people.
In a statement, Ashley Dribben said: “I am extremely disappointed by the Charity Commission’s report, of which they have taken three years to conclude and publish.
“In relation to the property sales, it was documented that I was acting in my professional capacity.
“The buildings were independently valued at £885,000 and I brought an offer for £4 million.
“It was documented that I would be paid a fee by the buyer, and therefore I withdrew from voting on the matter.
“In relation to my father, my parents founded this charity over 20 years ago and I am incredibly proud of the work they did.
“They housed and supported thousands of people in that time, and my father left TAF with over £4 million in the bank.”
He also claimed: “Last year, TAF paid my father a settlement for wrongful dismissal.”
Press Association – Jemma Crew