We all know that our lives can change in a moment, but we never imagine it will happen to us.
My life changed on July 17, 2018, when I was named in an Electoral Commission report2020欧洲杯体育投注开户 into the funding of the Vote Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum. The report also referred me to the Metropolitan Police with a request for a criminal investigation.
The story began two years earlier, when I was approached by Matthew Elliot, the founder and CEO of Vote Leave, which was hoping to get accreditation from the Electoral Commission2020欧洲杯体育投注开户 to become the main Brexit grouping in the referendum.
He asked if I would take the position of "responsible person" on the campaign, which means you have formal responsibility for reporting any donations, managing expenses and providing a signed declaration for the Electoral Commission to that effect. Trusting the intrinsic fairness of the British electoral system, I accepted.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户During the campaign, I chaired weekly meetings at the Vote Leave head office and worked closely with the finance director, Antonia Flockton. I was a volunteer but it was my responsibility to confirm that all expenditure was accounted for. Crucially, I had to confirm that we did not spend more than the £7 million limit set under the legislation, and I would be required to sign a declaration to that effect within six months of the referendum vote.
In early June 2016, we were concerned we might not raise enough from donations to spend up to that limit, but at the last minute, we received a £1 million donation which meant we had more money than we were permitted to spend.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户We had taken advice from the Electoral Commission and confirmed with them that we were allowed to make donations to other organisations. Those donations would not count towards our £7 million limit. The important proviso was that there should be no "common plan" agreed with the recipient, so Vote Leave decided to donate some of our funds to other organisations campaigning to leave the EU.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户It was a decision that would have enormous personal repercussions.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户When we won the referendum, there was a short period of elation – but it soon became clear that some Remainers were determined to overturn the result. They saw an opportunity to attack Vote Leave, making allegations that we had made the donations as part of an organised campaign plan agreed with the recipients. If this had been true, we would have been in breach of our spending limit.
The Electoral Commission came under pressure to investigate, and I received my first letter from their senior investigator dated August 5, 2016.
I was asked to provide additional information about four donations we made to Darren Grimes, a young Eurosceptic who had set up his own campaign group, BeLeave. I was asked if I considered that any spending was incurred working with Grimes and, if so, how I intended to report it.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户I responded to their questions and confirmed that the donation was not part of any collaboration, and received a further letter from the commission on 24 August. Without Antonia's help, I would never have had the resources to respond to their questions.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户In October 2016, the commission confirmed they were happy with our responses. I was therefore confident that the Vote Leave expense declaration I signed off in December 2016 was accurate.
Little did I know what was to come.
It's not easy to get to the truth of how events unfolded after the Electoral Commission indicated that they were satisfied with our response to their questions.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户I have been told that Claire Bassett, the CEO, was contacted on January 30, 2017 by a Remain supporter who said they had a list of potential lines of inquiry into Vote Leave's donations to BeLeave. Shortly afterwards, the same senior investigator who conducted the October 2016 inquiry wrote to me again, asking further detailed questions about the BeLeave donations.
It is hard to prove it, but there seems to have been an orchestrated campaign to put pressure on the commission to keep investigating until they found the answers Remain campaigners wanted. It seemed unimportant to the commission that we had already provided answers to the same or similar questions three months earlier. Antonia responded on behalf of Vote Leave and myself.
On March 28, 2017, the commission confirmed for the second time that they had no reasonable grounds to suspect anything untoward with my reporting of our expenditure, or any reason to think Vote Leave had discussed a "common plan" with Grimes. They declared the matter closed.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户It was at this point that the Remain supporter Jolyon Maugham decided to focus the attention of his Good Law Project on Vote Leave. In September 2017, he applied for a Judicial Review of the Electoral Commission's decision to accept that our donation to BeLeave was not a referendum expense of Vote Leave.
In a letter to the Good Law Project dated October 12, 2017, the commission stated, yet again, that all the information in their possession was consistent with there being no common plan. Despite this, the Good Law Project managed to get a judicial review of the commission's decision.
While all this was happening, the commission launched a third inquiry into our donations to BeLeave on November 20, 2017. Why? Did they lose their nerve? Or did they have a Remain bias that was now overcoming the need to be even-handed?
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户Our lawyers asked the commission to provide their rationale for launching the third inquiry. Between November 2017 and March 2018, they wrote seven times to seek clarity on the information justifying the investigation. Even now, no satisfactory reason has been given.
At one point the commission claimed there was new evidence, but it then became clear that the information to which they were referring had been in their hands since July 2016. Their own rules require them to have new evidence to justify the launch of further investigations.
What we didn't appreciate at the time was that, once the third inquiry had been made public, new information was submitted to the commission. Again, it is difficult to say exactly what happened, but it certainly appears to have been co-ordinated.
It must also have cost a lot of money, because these new submissions included a 50-page legal opinion from Matrix Chambers, dated March 2018, written by two QCs. The "evidence" came from three, self-styled whistleblowers who developed a working relationship with the commission, meeting them and their lawyers on March 22.
In the main, the most serious allegations contained in their statements were not credible, but this did not stop the commission agreeing to the release of the allegations to selected media outlets on March 25.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户They decided that our donations to BeLeave were "common plan" expenses and should have been reported by myself as Vote Leave's "responsible person". On June 5, 2018, they issued a notice proposing the maximum fine allowed – £20,000 – against Vote Leave as a penalty for exceeding the £7 million limit. At the same time, they sent us the Matrix legal opinion and the full details of the whistleblowers' statements. We were given 28 days to respond.
When our lawyers examined the statements, it became clear that all was not as it seemed. One of the whistleblowers had never worked for Vote Leave and one had done a small amount of consultancy work but left prior to the campaign getting its official designation.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户A third had worked briefly as a volunteer at Vote Leave and had contradicted himself in a voluntary statement about this matter to a senior Vote Leave official in 2016. He made a number of claims about Vote Leave that we were able to establish were incorrect. Vote Leave provided the Electoral Commission with over 400 pages of evidence to refute these new claims. My lawyer submitted further evidence.
Shortly afterwards, the Electoral Commission published their final report. Given the short timeframe, we concluded that they had not made a detailed analysis of our evidence. They simply announced that Vote Leave, and by implication myself, were guilty.
The report was sent to us at 6.45am on July 17 . By 7.10am, Ms Bassett, the commission CEO, was on Radio 4's Today programme to announce the findings.
In her interview, she asserted that Vote Leave had refused to be interviewed by the Electoral Commission. It is a matter of record that we contacted the commission and requested an opportunity to speak to them about the allegations and answer their questions.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户The report was the lead story on the news throughout that day. I was named, alongside Grimes, and accused of having dishonestly or recklessly signed a false declaration of spending on the Vote Leave return of December 2016. Both myself and Grimes were reported to the Metropolitan Police with a request for a criminal investigation.
Now, two years after the referendum, the real nightmare had started.
From the outset, I felt confident that the police would approach this matter in a different way to the Electoral Commission. I was sure they would not simply rely on statements from three people with little knowledge of the facts of the case. I also hoped that they would understand the evidence had to show a "common plan", which most lawyers view as a rather different test from the one applied by the commission.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户The police investigators were soon expressing their frustrations with the commission, complaining about their failure to supply all the relevant documents.
The police are under an obligation to review all material relevant to a criminal investigation, including material that might reasonably be considered capable of undermining the prosecution or assisting the defence. According to them, there were concerns that the commission's approach to the gathering and disclosure of evidence may not have complied with either the letter or the spirit of the Criminal Procedure and Investigation Act 1996.
In June 2019, Remain MPs threatened a judicial review of the police investigation, trying to put political pressure on them to speed up. But in July, nearly a year after the commission report that called for a criminal investigation, the police took the view that they had still not disclosed all of the documents in their possession or control that were potentially relevant to its investigation.
All the while, the allegations of criminal behaviour against myself and Vote Leave continued. Vote Leave decided it made sense to pay the fine imposed by the commission that related to our spending declaration. It had wanted to appeal, but myself and my three colleagues would have had to cover the costs personally.
In the Grimes appeal case, which he crowd-funded and won, the legal costs of the Electoral Commission were £435,000. The commission used the best and the most expensive lawyers, paid for out of public funds. The Vote Leave directors felt that crowd funding was not an option, as we could face costs of up to £1 million if we appealed. But it is important to note that Vote Leave continues to deny any wrongdoing.
My own case continued on its tortuous path. I was interviewed by the police under caution in October 2019. The officers were courteous, but I knew how serious my situation was.
Prior to this interview, my lawyers had given the police 24 pages of representations, with an additional 359 pages of supporting documents. I read those pages many times. I could not see any evidence that might justify the commission reporting me to the police, and yet still I could not be sure how the story would end.
Finally, on the eve of VE Day, May 8 2020, the police confirmed I had no case to answer. My ordeal was over. It took nearly four years of constant worry and cost me thousands of pounds in lawyers' fees. And, sadly, it severely affected my reputation.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户How did it all happen? You should draw your own conclusions, but I believe what happened to me was motivated by the desire to make Vote Leave pay for winning the referendum. There were people with money and power who believed that, if they could convince people we had overspent, they could overturn the result. I just happened to be in the firing line.
And what was the cost? For me, personally, it has been terrible. But perhaps you think I deserved it? Perhaps you didn't approve of Vote Leave and what we hoped to achieve? If so, you are missing the point of the story. I am an honest, innocent man who volunteered to help in a campaign that went to the heart of the future of our country.
You may not agree with my opinions, but I got involved with the best of intentions and a desire to play my part in contributing to a democratic debate around Brexit. I ask you, having read this story, would any of you now volunteer to do the same?
Alan Halsall has been a board member of Vote Leave since 2016