The father of a Greenwich councillor accused of housing fraud said he transferred property to her because he was suffering from kidney disease – and did not tell her about it because the knowledge would “kill her”, a court heard today.
Tony Ashikodi said in an email to Greenwich’s head of legal, John Scarborough, that he wanted to hand two properties over to Tonia Ashkodi, a councillor for Glyndon ward, in case he became incapacitated.
His daughter, who was first elected for Labour in 2016 and sits on the council’s housing scrutiny panel, is alleged to have applied for and accepted council housing in Plumstead while owning three properties, two in Thamesmead and one in Charlton.
Tonia Ashkodi, 30, is charged with two counts of fraud by false representation in applications to Greenwich Council for housing in October 2008 and May 2012, which she denies. With Tony, 50, she is also charged with committing an act intended to pervert the course of justice in May 2018. Both daughter and father deny this charge.
Inner London Crown Court has already heard from the council’s chief executive, Debbie Warren, who told jurors that Tonia Ashikodi asked to meet her after being told by a fellow councillor, Averil Lekau, that the council conducted Land Registry checks on councillors’ property holdings. She was said to have told Warren that she was concerned because her father had only just transferred two properties to her.
The third day of evidence also heard that Scarborough, who is responsible for monitoring councillors’ declarations of interests, had been aware of an investigation into Cllr Ashikodi’s property holdings since April 2018 – the month before she approached Warren.
- Day 1: Greenwich councillor lied about owning homes, fraud trial told
- Day 2: Greenwich Council boss ‘sought to protect councillor from press’
‘Asked for letter from solicitor’
Under questioning from Robert Fitt, for the prosecution, Scarborough said that he met Cllr Ashikodi in a private office at Woolwich Town Hall on 17 May 2018, after being alerted to her property concerns by one of Warren’s staff.
“She said to me that she wanted to get some advice on the fact that her father had told her on that day that two weeks previously, two properties had been transferred into her name at HM Land Registry,” he said.
“She said she’d had a conversation with another councillor, Averil Lekau, who had told her that the council does property checks on councillors. She had met her father and repeated this conversation and he said to her that she needed to tell me about these two properties.”
Asked if she had given any indication why she had told her father about this conversation, Scarborough said: “Not specifically.”
“Before the meeting could go any further, there was a phone call – it was her father, who was at her solicitors. Debbie had said to her to get advice about the tax status around the fact these two properties had been transferred into her name.
“She [Tonia] asked if helpful for solicitors to produce a document to explain the extent of her interest in these two properties. I said that would be very helpful. Because already, the circumstances seemed unusual – without her knowledge two properties had been transferred into her name – an explanation from a legal professional would be helpful.”
The defence has insisted that Ashikodi’s only interest in the properties was as a trustee – that she had no beneficial interest in them and so did not receive rent or pay bills.
‘I trust her so much’
Scarborough said that after Ashikodi had trouble explaining what was required to her father, he took the phone and spoke to him.
“I repeated the information that would be useful to see in the solicitors’ letter,” he told the jury. “That was the exact addresses of the properties, the exact extent of the interest, and the date on which those interests took effect. Mr Ashikodi agreed to ask the solicitor to provide that letter as soon as possible.”
Asked if there was any mention of a trust at this point, Scarborough said: “No. Because of his illness, he was in effect handing custody to his daughter, that was my understanding.”
After the phone call ended, Ashikodi “was very keen to know the impact of the properties being transferred into her name and her existing council tenancy”, he said.
“I said we would need to wait for the solicitors’ letter before I could comment on that.”
The following day, 18 May 2018, Scarborough found he had received two emails from Tony Ashikodi overnight with a number of documents, including Land Registry papers for homes in Epstein Road and Nickleby Close, both in Thamesmead, relating to his purchase of the properties in 1999. “There was nothing about the interest his daughter had in his properties in the attachments,” he said.
Notu Hoon, acting for Tonia Ashikodi, read out the email, which he said came with doctors’ notes. “Because of my illness, I felt I should a trustee in my daughter to help in case I become incapacitated,” it said.
“I have looked after her since her mother’s death since she was 12 years old and I trust her so much to look after my junior ones when I am gone.
“I have been sick with end-stage kidney disease which I have tried to keep from her … I know it will kill her if she knows.”
The note insisted that he had always paid the council tax on the properties and the bills and homecare insurance were in his name.
‘Entirely different’ document
Scarborough told Fitt that he spoke to Tony Ashikodi by phone in the morning and he said his solicitor was not due at work that day but would come in specially to produce the letter.
Both Tonia and Tony Ashikodi arrived at the town hall at about 5.40pm, he said. “They gave me a white envelope which wasn’t sealed. Because it was unsealed, I opened the envelope and got out what was inside in front of them. It wasn’t a solicitor’s letter, it was a legal document which was a declaration of trust.”
While the document was dated that day, it referred to a transfer date of 19 November 2007, Scarborough said – “entirely different” to what he had been told by Cllr Ashikodi. The document said that she had no beneficial interest in those properties, he added. There was no mention of the third property – at Valiant House, Valley Grove, Charlton – in the document, which he said was signed and stamped by solicitors acting as witnesses.
When Hoon put it to Scarborough that the trust deed was better than a solicitors’ letter which would “have no weight whatsoever”, he replied: “That’s not correct – [a solicitors’ letter] would supply a qualified legal opinion.
“I was looking for a solicitors’ letter to answer the three questions [about the properties], instead I received a trust deed which provided more questions than answers.
“She [Tonia] offered a solicitors’ letter, I did not get a solicitors’ letter, I got a declaration of trust.”
Scarborough said he handed the document to the council’s anti-fraud team on Monday, having already known there was a confidential investigation taking place into Ashikodi’s alleged property ownership. The anti-fraud team then invited the Ashikodis in for an interview under caution.
He wrote to both father and daughter on 22 May, he said, telling them that it would not be appropriate to continue discussions on the trust deed, and advising Cllr Ashikodi to seek independent legal advice. But Cllr Ashikodi called him to say she had “been given the wrong document and had made a mistake as she had been rushing him – the solicitor had asked to withdraw the document and replace it with amended one”.
“I explained to her that she needed to seek ind advice on those matters and that was really the end of the conversation,” he said. “The matter after that would have been in the hands of solicitors.”
‘I knew I would have to be careful’
Adam Gersch, for Tony Ashikodi, pressed Scarborough on his knowledge of the investigation into Ashikodi’s property holdings.
“All I was aware of was that the fraud team was looking into alleged ownership of residential properties in connection with her council tenancy – I was informed in April, I don’t have an exact date,” he said, adding he that he did not know where the properties were and that the matter had been delegated to Azuka Onuorah, the head of the housing litigation team.
“I was aware these inquiries were taking place when I accepted the request to see Cllr Ashikodi about her register of interests – but I didn’t know what that would be,” he said. “I knew I would have to be very careful and I am satisfied that I was not straying onto the investiagtion’s territory.”
The jury also heard from Joanne Marler, an assistant registrar at the Land Registry, who was asked to comment on the forms from 2007 transferring the properties from Tony to Tonia Ashikodi; a form from 2012 transferring the Valiant House property from Tonia Ashikodi to another individual; and two forms from May 2018 transferring Epstein Road and Nickleby Close from Tonia back to Tony Ashikodi. None of the forms recorded any type of trust arrangement.
She confirmed that properties which are being held in trust by a single person do not have to be recorded on such forms, and added that it was possible for people to transfer properties to another individual without their knowledge.
The trial, which is being heard by Judge Benedict Kelleher, continues on Friday.
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