Former homelessness charity bosses who authorised spending thousands in funds on watches, 50-in TVs and spyware to eavesdrop on clients have been found guilty of misconduct by the Charity Commission.
Ashley Dribben, an ex-trustee of the Ashley Foundation, and his father, Lee, its founder and former chief executive, personally benefited from funds intended to help vulnerable homeless people, the watchdog said.
The pair oversaw the spending of thousands of pounds of foundation cash on the upkeep and repair of properties they personally owned, while Ashley Dribben received a payment of £40,000 for his role in the multimillion-pound sale of three properties owned by the charity, a commission inquiry found.
The commission began its inquiry in 2019 after one of the foundation’s trustees, Lisa Edwards, took out a high court injunction against the Dribbens and former chair David Kam after discovering the charity had reimbursed Lee Dribben for £840,000 of spending on his personal credit card over a three-year period.
This included the purchase of Apple watches, a £1,000 iPhone and a £300 Dyson hairdryer. When asked by the commission what these were for, Lee Dribben said they were gifts “for people we thought would be of help to us in the future” such as local authority employees.
The commission stated: “This is not an acceptable or appropriate use of charity funds and raises concerns of questionable practices as to how the charity operated and whether it was compliant with the Bribery Act 2010.”
Asked by the commission about the purchase of a £600 Spymaster tracking device, Lee Dribben told them this would be “used in order to listen to individuals during contract negotiations with the charity, with the aim of the charity gaining information that would strengthen its position”.
The commission concluded this was inappropriate use of charity funds, adding: “Such covert activity is unacceptable conduct for a charity to be involved in.”
Lee Dribben was reimbursed after buying 50-in TVs and silk sheets on his personal credit card. He also spent thousands of pounds on first-class travel, £400-a-night hotel rooms and meals at expensive London restaurants – including Le Caprice, The Wolseley and the Terrace at The May Fair Hotel. The commission described this as “excessive”.
The watchdog concluded Ashley Dribben breached his company director duties by receiving £40,000 from third-party companies for his role in a £4m sale of three of the charity’s properties, which were then sold on later that day to a third company for £6.4m.
The new property owners then leased the properties to a housing association, which subsequently entered into a management agreement with the Ashley Foundation to manage the properties on its behalf.
Amy Spiller, head of investigations at the commission, said: “Our investigation found that the former trustees and CEO misused this charity and received significant unauthorised personal benefit from funds intended to help vulnerable homeless people.”
The watchdog paid tribute to Edwards, who it said “took a stand to address the mismanagement and misconduct despite being a lone voice on the trustee board and the commission commends her for her action and conviction to put matters right”.
Lee and Ashley Dribben were banned from holding trusteeships or management roles at charities for 15 years by the commission, which also said it referred its concerns about “potential criminality” to the police. Kam was disqualified for 10 years. Ashley Dribben and Kam resigned from the board in 2020 after being suspended as trustees by the commission.
The Ashley Foundation was set up in 1997 by Lee Dribben. It currently operates hundreds of hostel rooms and flats for homeless people in Blackpool, Blackburn and Sunderland in partnership with local authorities. Its current turnover is £3.3m, with the bulk of its income coming from housing benefit.
In a statement, Ashley Dribben, a Salford-based property investor, said he was “extremely disappointed” by the Charity Commission’s report.
He added: “In relation to the property sales: it was documented that I was acting in my professional capacity. The buildings were independently valued at £885,000 and I brought an offer for £4m. It was documented that I would be paid a fee by the buyer, and therefore I withdrew from voting on the matter.
“In relation to my father: my parents founded this charity over 20 years ago and I am incredibly proud of the work they did. They housed and supported thousands of people in that time, and my father left the foundation with over £4m in the bank.”