A Greenwich Labour councillor who applied for and accepted council housing while owning three other properties has been found guilty of two charges of housing fraud by a jury at Inner London Crown Court.
Tonia Ashikodi, who represents Glyndon ward, did not declare that she owned two houses in Thamesmead and a flat in Charlton when she applied for council housing in 2008. When she accepted a flat in Robert Street, Plumstead, in 2012, she was still the registered owner of those homes and did not tell the council.
Her father, Tony Ashkodi, had been receiving rent and paying bills on the property, and her defence counsel said that she had only owned the properties in trust for her father. However, the jury was shown several documents naming her as the landlord of the properties, including one agreeing to let out a property at Valiant House, next to Charlton Athletic football ground, on the same day she accepted her home in Plumstead.
She was found guilty of two charges of fraud by false representation in October 2008 and May 2012. Earlier in the trial, both father and daughter had been found not guilty of perverting the course of justice in relation to a trust deed they had given the council’s head of legal, John Scarborough, in May 2018.
Ashikodi, who chose not to give evidence in the trial, could face a prison sentence. “All sentencing options will be open to me, but I will take into account everything I have been told and you must see a probation officer,” Judge Benedict Kelleher said. The judge ordered a pre-sentence report and she was bailed to return to court for sentencing on 4 March.
The councillor looked stunned by the verdict as she left court.
Judge Kelleher thanked the jury of eight women and four men, who took about an hour to come to their verdict, for “the hard work you have put into this somewhat unusual case”.
The verdict will be a severe embarrassment to Greenwich Council’s ruling Labour group, particularly its leader Danny Thorpe, who cried when he addressed fellow councillors about her charge in July 2018.
853 revealed Ashikodi’s ownership of the Epstein Road property in June 2018, although rumours had been swirling around the Labour group for some weeks before that. It was disclosed in court that she had been under investigation by council officers since the previous March.
Council boss welcomes verdict
Greenwich Council’s chief executive, Debbie Warren, who gave evidence in the trial, said today: “We welcome the jury’s verdict today. The conversations we had with Cllr Ashikodi and her father, along with the evidence we were presented with at the time, led us to believe that there was a case to answer. Our decision to prosecute was taken in good faith following legal advice and I would like to thank the council staff who took to the witness stand to present our case – the unanimous decision shows that their evidence was accepted by the jury as a truthful reflection of events.
“We also should not forget why we had to prosecute. There are 20,000 residents on our housing waiting list and more than 1,000 households in temporary accommodation. Cllr Ashikodi would have known this as a councillor elected to represent the interests of our residents. The jury has found that she lied in her application for council housing and also when she signed her tenancy agreement. As well as breaking the law, she denied someone with a genuine need for a secure home.
“I would like to reiterate that our anti-fraud team operates autonomously from the rest of the council. Officers receive information and investigate without any political involvement and this case was handled in exactly the same way as any other case – we will continue to prosecute where there is evidence of fraud against the council.”
At the beginning of the trial, Robert Fitt, prosecuting, told the court that Greenwich Council had lost over £67,000 as a result of the alleged fraud – the cost of putting someone up in temporary accommodation for the time Ashikodi had been living in her council home.
She remains a councillor, although she will be disqualified from office if she is sentenced to three months or more, forcing a by-election in the ward, which covers parts of Plumstead and west Thamesmead.
The Tory opposition leader on Greenwich Council, Matt Hartley, said: “Tonia Ashikodi has been found guilty of housing fraud – a crime that denied others, who were in real need, a council property and also cost the taxpayer more than £67,000 in the process. This is an absolutely damning verdict, particularly for someone elected to represent others as a councillor.
“Today’s verdict also raises a whole host of serious questions that will need answering, and that we as Opposition councillors will be asking in the coming days and weeks.
“For now, the most important thing is that Tonia Ashikodi resigns as a councillor without delay. After this verdict she has lost the moral right to continue to serve as a councillor, and I hope she accepts that and resigns immediately.”
- Day 1: Greenwich councillor lied about owning homes, fraud trial told
- Day 2: Greenwich Council boss ‘sought to protect councillor from press’
- Day 3: Councillor’s father ‘kept kidney disease from daughter’
- Day 4: Councillor ‘let out rat-infested house while a council tenant’
- Day 5: Councillor and father cleared of perverting course of justice
- Day 6: ‘Political colluding’ could have led to councillor’s fraud trial
- Day 7: Greenwich councillor guilty of housing fraud
How the fraud unfolded
Tony Ashikodi transferred the ownership of three properties – in Epstein Road and Nickleby Close, Thamesmead; and Valiant House, Charlton – to his daughter in September 2007, when she was 18.
In October 2008, Tonia Ashikodi applied for council housing, and in May 2012 she was offered and accepted a home in Robert Street, Plumstead.
The jury was shown a number of documents relating to all three of the private properties naming her as the landlord, including a tenancy agreement for Valiant House dated 30 May 2012 – the same day she signed up to move into the council flat at Robert Street. The defence argued that she did not sign the documents herself, and that the properties had been transferred into her name without her knowledge, which is possible under English property law. The prosecution had argued that she owned an empty home the day she signed a document stating that she had nowhere else to live. The home at Valiant House was transferred to another individual a few days later.
Ashikodi was selected as Labour candidate for the Glyndon ward in a by-election, which she won in May 2016. However, in March 2018, a confidential investigation into whether she had been overpaid council tax benefit began after her father submitted a student certificate in relation to council tax at a home at Nickleby Close, the jury heard. Mark Rowe, a council investigator, told the court that the home was registered to Tonia Ashikodi.
After Ashikodi retained her seat at the May 2018 council election, the jury heard that she was told by Averil Lekau – then the housing cabinet member – that the council conducted Land Registry checks on all new councillors. Ashikodi then went to see Debbie Warren, the council’s chief executive, and told her that her father had only just informed her that he had transferred properties at Epstein Road and Nickleby Close into her name three weeks before and that she was worried about the effect on the declarations of interest all councillors have to submit. Later that day, she raised the issue of the council home with Warren.
She also spoke to John Scarborough, the council’s head of legal, who told the court that he suggested she submit a letter from her solicitor to give a legal opinion on the ownership status of the properties.
However, the following day, Ashikodi and her father presented him with a “trust deed”, which had been witnessed by solicitors, stating that the properties at Epstein Road and Nickleby Close had been held in trust by her since September 2007 – contradicting her account of the properties having been transferred just a few weeks before. The document also failed to mention the property at Valiant House, which was owned by Ashikodi when she moved into the council home in Plumstead.
‘Data breach’ allegations
The trial also heard evidence that council officers suspected Lekau, who is now the cabinet member for health and social care, of a data breach regarding Ashikodi’s housing details when a press enquiry about the issue was made by the left-wing website Skwawkbox. Lekau – who stood against Thorpe for the leadership of the council earlier that month, and lost out by just one vote – was not called as a witness in the trial. Yesterday, Ashkodi’s defence counsel, Notu Hoon, suggested “political collusion” may have led to the case being brought to court.
Ashikodi was seen as a supporter of Thorpe, and Skwawkbox – which has close connections with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party – later ran a story about the allegations that did not name the councillor, alleging a cover-up and describing her as a “key ally” of the “centrist” council leader. Skwawkbox was not in court to report on the trial.
Ashikodi’s future on the council is uncertain. She had been suspended from the council’s Labour group, but continued to sit with them in full council meetings until two weeks ago. She also continued to sit on the housing scrutiny panel, which is due to meet tomorrow night.
The case had first been moved from Woolwich Crown Court because of its location in Greenwich borough, and then switched between Inner London and Blackfriars courts. It had been due to be heard in April 2019 at Blackfriars, but was delayed because of difficulties in getting witnesses. Then it was due to be heard in June 2019, but was held up until this month because of a lack of space in the Inner London court. Blackfriars has now closed down.
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