The Disgraced Dame, a U40m Treasure Hunt and a Stunning Contempt for Justice; as Former Council Leader Shirley Porter Ignores a Court Order to Reveal Her Financial Assets

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Byline: KEITH DOVKANTS

FOR someone who claims her finances are at an all-time low, Dame Shirley Porter does rather well. The woman who once cut a Thatcherite swathe through London politics with her iron-grip rule at Westminster lives in a penthouse overlooking the sea outside Tel Aviv, pops across the Atlantic to spend time at her ranch house in Palm Springs, and takes holidays aboard a cruise liner in a grand suite that costs u90,000. In Monte Carlo, where she patronises the most exclusive designer boutiques, she stays at the renowned Hermitage Hotel, which charges around u500 a night for even a modest suite.

How does she do it? It is a question that preoccupies City lawyer John Fordham, whose firm has been engaged to track down Dame Shirley's assets. The former Tory council leader and Tesco heiress owes the residents of Westminster u36,966,542 and, from today, the search for her fortune becomes deadly serious.

Dame Shirley, once feted and fawned upon as the very model of a City Hall boss, failed to meet a High Court deadline ordering her to reveal where her money went. After years of playing cat and mouse with auditors, lawyers and private detectives, the hunt for Dame Shirley's missing millions has reached endgame.

"She has crossed the Rubicon," Mr Fordham said. In failing to comply with the midnight deadline Dame Shirley, once assured a place in the pantheon of Tory politicians, becomes liable for drastic legal action that could lead to contempt of court proceedings, arrest and even imprisonment.

Mr Fordham has a list of assets Dame Shirley was believed to own, and his firm, Stephenson Harwood, is trying to find out what happened to them. Her personal fortune, once estimated at more than u60million, appears to have vanished into thin air.

The assets include shares, homes, two forests in Scotland and an exclusive burial plot in a north London cemetery worth an estimated u60,000.

But Dame Shirley, 72, claims that all she has is u67.25 in a Coutts bank account, a u60 interest in her husband's trust fund and a few personal possessions and artworks - including a portrait of herself - worth about u300,000. So what happened to the rest?

SOME of London's top private investigators have been trying to find out. The point of departure for one of the most bizarre treasure hunts of recent times came in January 1994, when the district auditor John Magill presented a 586-page report into what became known as the "Homes for Votes" affair.

Mr Magill, a mild-mannered civil servant, investigated allegations that Dame Shirley and Conservative councillors at Westminster had poured millions of pounds of public money into a scheme aimed at increasing electoral support for the Tories.

His conclusions tore Westminster apart. He found that Dame Shirley and a number of Conservative colleagues on the council contrived a gerrymandering scheme after their majority fell from 26 to four at the 1986 election. They launched a policy called Building Stable Communities, a confidence-inspiring title that masked a cynical plot to sell council properties to people they believed would vote Conservative.

It involved making grants up to u15,000 a property to help council tenants move out so they could be replaced by owner-occupiers. Eight marginal wards were targeted.

Mr Magill's investigation led to Dame Shirley and her former deputy David Weeks being found guilty of misconduct. But Dame Shirley, who once counted former prime minister Margaret Thatcher among her allies and admirers, fought back with everything in her power.

At one point she tried to have Mr Magill taken off the case. And then, in 1999, the Court of Appeal found in her favour.

But Mr Magill's tenacity finally paid off. The Law Lords backed his appeal and Lord Bingham declared Dame Shirley and Mr Weeks guilty of "a deliberate, blatant and dishonest misuse of public power". …

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