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Oxfam boss accused of covering up a sex scandal in a previous job ‘knew the man who quit’

The Oxfam boss accused of covering up a sex scandal at a charity he previously led had known the senior figure who quit over the affair since his ‘student days’ at Oxford, according to a letter leaked to The Mail on Sunday.

Danny Sriskandarajah was director of the Royal Commonwealth Society when the man was allowed to ‘quietly resign’ after being confronted with a secret dossier detailing his encounters with sex workers.

According to a whistleblower, Dr Sriskandarajah helped brush the resignation ‘under the carpet’, raising possible questions about his suitability to lead Oxfam. 

The charity appointed him chief executive earlier this year to improve its tarnished image in the wake of the Haiti scandal.

A letter leaked to this newspaper by an RCS insider previously unconnected to the affair now claims that the senior figure, who cannot be named for legal reasons, had known Dr Sriskandarajah ‘since his [Dr Sriskandarajah’s] student days’ at Oxford some four years earlier.

It says they had an ‘ongoing professional relationship’.

Last night both Dr Sriskandarajah and the senior figure strongly denied the claim and insisted they first met when Dr Sriskandarajah was interviewed for the RCS job nine months before he started work. They also questioned if the letter was genuine.

The letter also addresses claims that the man was allegedly instrumental in helping Dr Sriskandarajah secure the top job at the RCS, which was founded in 1868 and whose patron is the Queen. The man vehemently denies doing so.

Separately, similar concerns over Dr Sriskandarajah’s appointment – and the circumstances surrounding the senior figure’s departure – were passed, along with a letter from a second whistleblower, to a Government agency. But no action was taken. The letter claims:

The letter is in the name of Sir Michael McWilliam, former managing director of Standard Chartered Bank, who was chairman of the RCS.

Dated April 2009, a month after the senior figure quit, it is marked ‘confidential draft’ and begins ‘Dear Colleague’. 

It appears to be intended for the RCS’s sister organisations, but when shown the letter, Sir Michael said last week he believes it was never sent.

He didn’t question its authenticity. ‘Frankly I’ve never seen that letter, at least I have no recollection of seeing it… but memory is fallible,’ he said.

Asked if it reflected concerns at the time, he said: ‘It reflects someone’s concerns at the time.’

He added: ‘I can see somebody might have drafted this as the sort of thing we ought to do. But I imagine we concluded it wasn’t because… I don’t think we did talk to other organisations.’

In an interview, Sir Michael, who said he has never seen the dossier’s contents, made a series of extraordinary admissions about how the affair was handled, and said it might be different if it happened today.

‘I think probably attitudes, even as recently as ten years ago, may have been different,’ he said.

‘So I think it is important not to impose contemporary concerns on that time.’

He added ‘it would be fair to say he [Dr Sriskandarajah] was not an experienced charity administrator when this drama blew up and it is unfortunate he was personally known to [the senior figure] who then had to resign’.

The whistleblower, Nigel McCollum, who was the RCS’s head of public affairs, has critcised Dr Sriskandarajah for failing to take charge in the resignation’s aftermath.

Mr McCollum said the RCS’s council of trustees should have taken action collectively, but says only a few senior trustees were formally told about the allegations, which related to a time when the senior figure worked for another Government-funded charity.

Sir Michael confirmed Mr McCollum’s suspicions that two other charities the senior figure was involved with at the time of his resignation were not alerted.

Sir Michael said he assumed the man stepped down from these roles at the same time, though in fact he remained with them for many years later.

Asked why these and other organisations were not told what had happened, Sir Michael replied: ‘I think possibly it is a fair point to say it should have been something we debated more fully than happened. Whether we’d have come to the same conclusion, I don’t know. But it is a fair point to say that with the wisdom of now it probably was a decision that should have had more deep consideration.’

The letter says ‘despite Dr Sriskandarajah being included within the emails concerning [the senior figure’s] activities, it does not prevent him from carrying out his duties to the Society’.

Last week Sir Michael said he thought it was more ‘likely to have been an exchange of emails to do with RCS business, not to do with the substance of the papers’. This view is supported by an RCS source who spoke to this newspaper last week.

Sir Michael conceded that ‘there’s also an element of embarrassment about something involving sexual things’ so ‘a few senior members of the council knew the full story and the rest were told’ the man had resigned for personal reasons and it ‘didn’t go further than that’.

He agreed that it should ‘possibly’ have been shared more widely with the trustees, adding: ‘Standards have changed a bit on all of these things over time and I think at that stage that the feeling probably was for the good of everybody the quicker he is out of the way the better.’

Sir Michael said ‘the bottom line is he [the senior figure] was very shortly involved in the RCS, there’s no suggestion that whatever he was doing involved RCS people or that he was using his position in the RCS’.

Dr Sriskandarajah, who was RCS director between January 2009 and 2012, has insisted he was ‘not involved in, or party to, any decisions relating to the resignation’.

In a statement he said the matter was ‘rightly dealt with’ – not by him but ‘by the trustees at the time’. And he further said he had never seen the ‘alleged material’ contained in the dossier.

Asked why Dr Sriskandarajah had not been more directly involved, Sir Michael replied that perhaps it was because he was not an ‘experienced executive figure’.

Sri Lankan-born Dr Sriskandarajah had previously run a immigration think-tank, having completed a doctoral thesis in 2005.

Aged 34, he joined the RCS eight weeks before the senior figure’s resignation.

‘It was a fairly horrifying thing to be confronted with within weeks of taking the job and you don’t necessarily do everything you would do if you had been in the job longer,’ said Sir Michael.

He described Dr Sriskandarajah as ‘a highly competent, dedicated, hard-working and resourceful young man’, adding: ‘I was rather impressed with him.’

But he said the director’s personal knowledge of the senior figure may have caused him to take a step back. ‘I think one can read all that into it now and a more experienced hand – out of self-protection – wouldn’t have dealt with it in quite the closed way that happened. So I think one can make all those comments but I don’t think that warrants the hauling over the coals now.’

Others have told this newspaper of their concerns about the recruitment process which led to Dr Sriskandarajah’s appointment.

These, too, are reflected in the letter. ‘I have… been given assurances by two council members involved in the hiring process, that Dr Sriskandarajah was hired for merit,’ it says.

But an RCS insider reported ‘considerable disquiet’ within the society at the time. ‘When Danny came on board we were told he would go on an executive leadership programme to help prepare him,’ he told The Mail on Sunday.

‘There was shock. We have a new director general who doesn’t have a clue about things!’

However, the letter’s author did not feel it necessary that the ‘appointment process should be reviewed at this stage’, adding that the course Dr Sriskandarajah attended prior to taking up his post ‘should prepare him adequately for the rigours of overseeing the Society’.

The letter also appears to suggest that Dr Sriskandarajah received an enhanced salary but this was also denied. 

Last night Dr Sriskandarajah said: ‘As I have previously confirmed, I was not involved in, or party to, any decisions relating to the resignation. The matter was rightly dealt with by the trustees at the time and not me.

‘As the Director of the RCS, I was assured by the trustees that the allegations did not relate to the individual’s role at the RCS. I have no recollection of meeting the individual in question before the final stages of the recruitment process for the Director position for the RCS in mid-2008.’

A spokesman for the senior figure said: ‘The alleged letter, even if it truly existed, is a scandalous fabrication. The first time the individual met Danny Sriskandarajah was when he was interviewed for the post of Director at the RCS.

‘Any suggestion that he had met him at any time before then is simply a lie.’

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