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Britain’s business, political elite caught in sleaze dinner scandal

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by: Agence France-Presse

Britain’s business and political elite distanced themselves Wednesday from a male-only fundraising dinner where the hostesses were reportedly sexually harassed, prompting charities to return cash tainted by the event.

The dinner at the luxury Dorchester Hotel in central London last week gathered 360 businessmen and male politicians for the charity auction, while 130 hostesses were hired to keep them entertained.

The Presidents Club event was thrust into the spotlight on Wednesday after an undercover journalist from the Financial Times newspaper witnessed widespread abuse at the event.

“I was groped several times and I know that there are numerous other hostesses who said the same thing had happened to them,” FT reporter Madison Marriage told the BBC.

“The worst I was told by one of the hostesses was a man taking his penis out during the course of the dinner,” she added.

The ramifications of the report were felt on Wednesday, when businessman David Meller was fired from the Department for Education board over his role as joint chairman of the Presidents Club dinner.

“The Department for Education is clear that this is unacceptable, right from the word ‘go’,” junior minister Anne Milton told MPs in the House of Commons.

The chairman of the Meller Group, a luxury goods firm, has not been accused of harassment himself.

– PM not invited –
This year’s auction included lunch with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who “had not agreed to support this event and knew nothing of the inclusion of any lunch,” according to a spokesman of Prime Minister Theresa May.

Pointing out that May would not have been invited to the dinner — owing to the ban on female guests — her spokesman said the premier was “uncomfortable at the reports”.

The Bank of England also distanced itself from the event, after the Financial Times reported an afternoon tea with governor Mark Carney had been offered at the auction.

A tour of the central bank had been donated to a separate event and reauctioned without permission at the Presidents Club dinner, the BoE said.

Carney was “deeply dismayed that such an event could take place”, it added.

A member of May’s government, children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi, came under fire for attending the dinner.

He “has himself said that he felt uncomfortable at it, leaving at the point that the hostesses were introduced”, the prime minister’s spokesman said.

– No more charity dinners –
In the wake of the scandal, Presidents Club trustees announced they would distribute the remaining funds to charities and will not hold any further fundraising events.

The FT investigation prompted the flight of sponsors and beneficiaries of the dinner, which says it has raised £20 million ($28.3 million, 22.9 million euros) for charitable causes over 33 years.

Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, a famous London institution, said it had not attended this year’s event and was not due to receive any funds raised at Thursday’s dinner.

“However, due to the wholly unacceptable nature of the event we are returning previous donations and will no longer accept gifts from the Presidents Club Charitable Trust,” the spokeswoman said.

Evelina London Children’s Hospital also said it would return all previous donations, while London’s Royal Academy of Music said it would return a donation received last year.

The hostesses signed non-disclosure agreements at the start of the event, had their phones locked away and were instructed to wear black underwear, the FT said.

A full-page notice in the event brochure reportedly included a warning against sexual harassment.

Britain’s Charity Commission said it was “assessing these allegations as a matter of urgency and will be contacting the Presidents Club Charitable Trust”.

Global advertising firm WPP sponsored a table at the Presidents Club dinner and said it was unaware of the alleged incidents.

“In light of the allegations we are ending our association with the event,” a company spokesman said.

The event organisers said they were “appalled by the allegations of bad behaviour” and would investigate promptly.

The Dorchester Hotel said it was “deeply concerned” and has “zero tolerance of any form of harassment to our guests, employees and suppliers”.

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