INTERNATIONAL NEWS - Britain's Electoral Commission on Wednesday announced a formal investigation into how Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid for a lavish makeover of his Downing Street flat, seriously escalating a simmering scandal.
"We are now satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred. We will therefore continue this work as a formal investigation to establish whether this is the case," the watchdog said.
The Electoral Commission, which regulates party and election finance, has the powers to demand the repayment of questionable donations, levy fines, or ultimately refer investigations to the police for criminal prosecution.
Johnson has been locked in a war of words with his former top aide Dominic Cummings over his coronavirus policies last year and financial dealings.
Cummings, the strategist behind the 2016 campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, quit Downing Street in December under a cloud of acrimony.
He wrote on his personal blog on Friday that Johnson had sought to use potentially illegal donations to renovate his publicly funded Downing Street accommodation, reportedly at a cost of up to £200,000 ($280,000, 230,000 euros).
Johnson, his fiancee Carrie Symonds and their baby son live in quarters above Number 11 Downing Street, which are more spacious than those attached to Number 10.
Johnson's press aides have insisted he has paid himself for any refurbishment beyond an annual government allowance, and that Conservative Party funds are not being used.
But they have failed to explain if party funds were used initially, amid reports that a rich donor stumped up a donation of £58,000 which was not reported to the Electoral Commission as required by law.
'Bodies pile high'
"We have been in contact with the Conservative Party since late March and have conducted an assessment of the information they have provided to us," an Electoral Commission spokesperson said.
"The investigation will determine whether any transactions relating to the works at 11 Downing Street fall within the regime regulated by the Commission and whether such funding was reported as required."
Opposition parties have seized on the apartment makeover to accuse the prime minister of playing fast and loose with taxpayers' money during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the government handed out many contracts with little or no oversight.
Criticism has mounted after it emerged this week that Johnson last year, while the pandemic was still raging in Britain, instructed senior civil servants to look into setting up a charitable trust to maintain the Downing Street complex.
And on Wednesday, a second opposition party demanded his resignation if it is confirmed that he callously dismissed the prospect of thousands more dying of Covid-19.
In a front-page headline on Monday, the Daily Mail newspaper reported Johnson had said he would rather see "bodies pile high in their thousands" than impose a third coronavirus lockdown.
Ultimately, Johnson did order a new round of restrictions in January, and he denies making the remark.
But the BBC and other outlets have quoted sources as confirming he did, and the main opposition Labour party accuses Johnson of lying.