PAUL BRACCHI: How has this mayor, who was banned for electoral fraud, seized back power? 

Only in the ‘rotten borough’ of Tower Hamlets perhaps (the words of a former cabinet minister) could Lutfur Rahman, a man once described by a judge as a ‘gangster’ as he was banned from office for electoral fraud, have made a comeback.

But here he was, in the wake of the polls closing last Thursday, delivering an Oscars-style speech after 40,804 people voted for him to be the all-powerful mayor of the sprawling East London district, which encompasses Canary Wharf and the Olympic Park.

At his disposal will be a budget of more than £1 billion. How could this have happened?

In 2015, Rahman was kicked out of the town hall — where he had just begun his second term as mayor — and banned from holding public office for five years, the maximum penalty a special hearing of the Electoral Commission, sitting at the High Court, could impose.

The rap sheet of offences was astonishing. Rahman and his cronies, the commission judge ruled, had quite literally stolen the 2014 election by creating an army of ‘ghost voters’, as well as forging postal votes, bribing fellow Muslims with money diverted from other groups — telling them they would go to hell unless they backed him — and playing the race card at every opportunity by accusing anyone who opposed him of being racists and bigots.

Lutfur Rahman (pictured), is the newly elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets – the sprawling East London district, which encompasses Canary Wharf and the Olympic Park

Sickeningly, one of the charitable organisations that had its grant slashed to further his personal political campaign was the Alzheimer’s Society.

‘The town hall was being run by gangsters,’ was the judge’s coruscating verdict.

Then, Rahman’s removal from office was hailed as a victory for democracy. Following his Lazarus-like return, the opposite is now true.

Speaking after the count, he declared: ‘The people of the borough gave a verdict today. I was in the court of the people. And they said, in a loud voice, they wanted Lutfur Rahman and his team to serve them for the next four years and that’s what I want to do.’

It’s truly a shocking state of affairs. Beating the incumbent Labour mayor John Biggs, Rahman’s Aspire party (as in ‘aspiring for stronger communities and a fairer future’) has also taken control of Tower Hamlets council from Labour, winning 24 of the 45 seats.

Rahman greeted supporters outside York Hall in Bethnal Green after being elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets in 2010

 Rahman greeted supporters outside York Hall in Bethnal Green after being elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets in 2010

One of Rahman’s supporters is former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone. The two have known each other for years, with Livingstone’s photograph even printed on election literature next to his ringing endorsement for his friend which read: ‘I trust Lutfur with my life — he will make your life better.’

Already, though, there have been accusations of dirty tricks during the campaign, after online leaflets pertaining to be from the campaign group Stand Up To Racism made false allegations that a Labour candidate was a BNP supporter.

Stand Up To Racism said it had no knowledge or involvement in the claim. Rahman claims that he has never acted dishonestly.

He has been compared to a 1930s American gangster, having previously run Tower Hamlets like his personal fiefdom.

But perhaps his nearest British equivalent is T. Dan Smith, the leader of Newcastle Council in the 1960s, who awarded lucrative building contracts to his friend the architect, John Poulson, in what became known as the Poulson scandal.

Rahman, Ken Livingstone (left) and George Galloway (right) pictured together in East London in 2014

Rahman, Ken Livingstone (left) and George Galloway (right) pictured together in East London in 2014

Rahman is at pains to point out that, unlike T. Dan Smith, he has never been convicted of, or charged with, a criminal offence, that he is innocent of any wrong-doing and the ‘victim of a travesty of justice.’

To be clear, he was found guilty of ‘corrupt and illegal practices’ in the High Court.

Either way, some parallels with Newcastle under T. Dan Smith are clear to see. One is the old Poplar Town Hall, which is now a hotel.

The building was sold in 2011 on Rahman’s watch for the knock-down price of just £867,000 to one of his political supporters, even though the ‘winning’ bid arrived late and rival bids — which included a higher offer — had been opened.

At the time, it was said the building would be used for offices. However in 2014 it emerged that a closed doors council meeting had authorised a ‘change of permit’ to allow it to be converted into a hotel.

Furious opposition councillors said the move had denied the taxpayers a substantial sum.

‘It would have been worth millions to council taxpayers sold as a hotel, but was marketed as offices when the commercial market was depressed,’ said Tory Group leader Peter Golds after the change was revealed.

Rahman, who has been elected mayor of Tower Hamlets in London on the second round, defeating incumbent John Biggs (centre) of Labour, at the Tower Hamlets election count in London

Rahman, who has been elected mayor of Tower Hamlets in London on the second round, defeating incumbent John Biggs (centre) of Labour, at the Tower Hamlets election count in London

Rahman was banned from running for public office for five years in 2015 after being convicted of polling offences when he first ran in Tower Hamlets

Rahman was banned from running for public office for five years in 2015 after being convicted of polling offences when he first ran in Tower Hamlets

Another example is the former Royal London Hospital on Whitechapel Road, which is being turned into the new headquarters for the council.

The site, in one of London’s most deprived areas, was bought by Rahman when he was mayor the first time round and, amid spiralling costs, has been criticised as his vanity project — dubbed ‘Lutfur’s Palace’.

Father-of-two Rahman arrived in Tower Hamlets when he was a boy after his parents fled Bangladesh, then East Pakistan.

After working at a firm of solicitors, he became a Labour councillor in 2002, rising to be leader in 2008.

Two years later, Tower Hamlets introduced the post of directly-elected mayor. 

Rahman assumed he would be the Labour candidate, but found himself cut off the party’s shortlist.

He stood anyway and won, becoming the first in the country to hold such a position. He has lived in the same red-brick terraced house with his family for many years.

Yet four years ago, after he had been barred from office, a judge found he had misled mortgage lenders and failed to declare income on two buy-to-let properties since 2005.

Rahman initially remained in power for so long for the same reason he has now been re-elected — the continued support of the Bangladeshi community, which make up 32 per cent of the borough’s population.

White British residents account for 31 per cent, among the lowest for any borough in England.

In the past Rahman ignored the non-Bengali media. But in 2012 Tower Hamlets spent £12,000 sponsoring an awards ceremony for controversial Bangladeshi station Channel S — an influential TV channel broadcasting to nearly half a million Bangladeshis, which gave Rahman fawning coverage.

His cronies exploited bonds of kinship and other traditional allegiances to deliver bloc votes at the ballot box and were warned it was ‘haram’ — forbidden or unlawful — not to vote for him.

Indeed, footage emerged on social media during the most recent campaign of one of Rahman’s supporters telling a packed room of Muslims: ‘Can you all collect 20 votes per head? I give you an oath as an adviser, I will collect 1,000 votes.’

Rahman’s legal representative insisted that ‘by collecting votes’, their client’s supporter meant encouraging the audience to go out campaigning to persuade others to behave in a certain way.’

But Rahman has form for this. Back in 2010, Tory councillor Peter Golds phoned the Daily Mail to voice his concerns about Rahman. He and a reporter then visited East London addresses where a large number of voters had been added to the electoral roll.

At one Labour candidate’s home, five voters had mushroomed to 12 within a month. There are many other examples highlighted by the Electoral Commission.

‘There have been lots of dirty tricks during this campaign,’ said Councillor Golds following last week’s result.

‘Rahman has turned himself into a martyr in the Bangladeshi community by saying he has never been convicted of anything [he was ‘found guilty’ at the High Court].

‘One wonders whether he will try to do what he did before and funnel cash to supporters. He gave extraordinary sums of money to organisations that were sympathetic to him.’

During Raham’s previous stint as mayor, Golds remembers him hiring a top-of-the-range Mercedes and chauffeur to ferry him around and spending £115,000 on an office makeover at a time when the council was making cuts worth £70 million.

Golds eventually submitted more than 20 complaints against Rahman about suspected corruption — but police took no action.

The Electoral Commission would later accuse the Metropolitan Police of turning ‘a blind eye to industrial scale voting fraud’ because they were too afraid of being accused of Islamophobia, a tactic Rahman used against opponents.

In the end, a legal challenge was launched by four ordinary citizens at their own expense. By law, any voter can bring a case alleging electoral fraud under the Representation of the People Act 1983.

One of them was Bengali businessman Azmal Hussain, who runs a curry house in Brick Lane.

Just hours after the 2014 election result was challenged in the High Court, white paint was poured over his van and a window at his restaurant was smashed.

Though there is no evidence to link Rahman to what happened, it’s hard to believe his supporters weren’t responsible.

‘Tower Hamlets is a multi-cultural community,’ said Mr Hussain, 69. ‘Plenty of white and black people live here. But only the Bengali people come out and vote and even after our successful legal challenge they still chose him.

‘Why? It’s because this council is a goldmine with a budget of more than £1 billion.’

Another of the four was Andy Erlam, 71, a former Labour parliamentary candidate and businessmen.

‘Five years is a ridiculous ban,’ he said, speaking from Suffolk, where he now lives. ‘Somebody convicted of voter fraud should lose the right to hold public office for life.

‘I have no regrets about bringing the petition when other authorities were standing by doing nothing. But I would not recommend this to my worst enemy. We did get legal aid but eight years on we are still in dispute over legal bills.’

The four — including grandmother Angela Moffat and former Labour candidate Debbie Simone, now in her early 50s — were praised for their courage by electoral judge Richard Mawrey, QC, saying their ‘difficult, exhausting and anxious 11 months’ pursuing the case had been made all the worse knowing Rahman would falsely portray them as racists and Islamophobes’.

Rahman, former Labour Party mayor of Tower Hamlets, pictured addressing an anti-austerity rally in Parliament Square in London

Rahman, former Labour Party mayor of Tower Hamlets, pictured addressing an anti-austerity rally in Parliament Square in London

Rahman was, said the judge, ‘incapable of telling the truth’ and had driven ‘a coach and horses’ through the law.

After he delivered his damning report, Eric Pickles, then Secretary for Communities and Local Government, sent in independent auditors to scrutinise millions of pounds in grants and property sales.

They found public money was spent ‘inappropriately on political advertising’, grants handed out to groups that were ‘ruled ineligible’ and campaigners who challenged his election victory were ‘intimidated on an industrial scale’.

‘There can be no place for rotten boroughs in 21st century Britain,’ Mr Pickles told MPs.

‘If I was the mayor of Tower Hamlets I would be holding my head in shame, because what he’s allowed to occur in Tower Hamlets is shameful.’

It seems, however, that Lutfur Rahman has no shame. And many fear his five-year ban will not have caused him to change his ways.

As a despairing Councillor Golds predicts: ‘From everything he has said and done during the campaign, it looks like he will be exactly the same in office as before.’

Additional reporting: Tim Stewart

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk

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