Aspinall Foundation: Head of wildlife charity that employs Carrie Johnson ‘asked by the Charity Commission to step down’

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The head of the wildlife charity that employs Carrie Johnson has been asked by the Charity Commission to step down as chairman and trustee after an inquiry into its finances, The Independent has been told.

It is understood that Aspinall Foundation chairman Damian Aspinall has requested and been granted time to question the ruling before an official announcement by the commission in the coming weeks.

The Charity Commission launched an investigation into the Aspinall Foundation’s “financial management and wider governance” in March last year.

The charity’s 2021 accounts showed it paid more than £150,000 in “interior design services” to the chairman’s wife Victoria Aspinall in 2020.

The Aspinall Foundation said the fees charged by Mrs Aspinall were “subject to a rigorous benchmarking exercise to ensure the foundation received value for money”.

In 2020 the foundation’s trustees secured a coronavirus business interruption loan of £2m, interest free for the first year. This was passed on via a loan to the Howletts Wild Animal Trust.

The Aspinall Foundation’s 2019 accounts showed the 30-room Howletts mansion in Kent owned by the charity was rented to Damian Aspinall for £2,500 a month.

In 2020, he paid just over £10,000 a month for rent of the same mansion, after the rent was calculated based on an independent valuation.

The matters being investigated by the commission pre-date Mrs Johnson’s appointment in January 2021 in a senior communications role. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by her.

Founded by Mr Aspinall’s father John, a friend of Lord Lucan, the organisation runs a zoo and safari park in Kent as well as conducting conservation work overseas.

Some of its projects are carried out in conjunction with sister charity, the Howletts Wild Animal Trust, which runs two wild animal parks in Kent.

Casino owner and socialite Mr Aspinall’s fellow trustees include Ben Goldsmith, the brother of government minister Zac Goldsmith, who is a close friend of Mr and Mrs Johnson.

Aspinall Foundation chairman Damian Aspinall

(Aspinall Foundation)

The charity has large reserves in cash, property and fine art.

A source closely involved with the Charity Commission inquiry said it had ruled against Mr Aspinall but had delayed an official announcement after the Foundation sought to question the verdict.

When the Charity Commission launched its inquiry, it stressed that the opening of an inquiry is not a finding of wrongdoing.

However, a statutory inquiry is its most serious form of investigation, carried out only where it is seriously concerned that a charity is at risk of wrongdoing and abuse.

In such circumstances it has the power to remove trustees from the board, take control of the charity or close it.

The Aspinall Foundation has also faced controversy over a plan to send 13 elephants from the UK to Kenya in a “rewilding project”.

The charity described it as a groundbreaking “resettlement” scheme.

But some wildlife experts said the charity could be sending the animals to their deaths.

They argued the animals were “too used” to being in captivity at Howletts Wildlife Park in Kent and would not be able to cope without human help.

The Aspinall Foundation said it had a 30-year history of rewilding animals and it was confident the elephant project would be a success.

A spokesman for the Charity Commission said: “Our inquiry into the Aspinall Foundation remains ongoing; we are unable to comment on active inquiries so as to avoid prejudicing the outcome. We intend to publish an inquiry report setting out our findings once it has concluded.”

Pressed to say if Mr Aspinall had been asked to resign, the spokesman declined to comment further.

A spokesperson for the Aspinall Foundation defended “selfless and dedicated” Mr Aspinall and said it was “factually incorrect” to say he had been asked by the commission to step aside as chairman and as a trustee, but declined to elaborate.

The spokesperson added: “It would be inappropriate for the trustees to comment any further on what amounts to speculation and rumour. Damian plays a vital role in one of the UK’s most important conservation organisations, supporting groundbreaking conservation projects around the world. Through his selfless work and decades of dedication, we have made great strides in halting the extinction of rare and endangered species, returning them to the wild where possible.”

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