Vote Leave has been fined £61,000 and reported to the police by the Electoral Commission for breaking electoral law.
The Electoral Commission published the conclusions of its investigation into the campaign spending of Vote Leave and found “significant evidence” of coordination with another campaign group, BeLeave.
The Electoral Commission found that the campaign group exceeded its legal spending limit of £7m by almost £500,000 during the 2016 referendum campaign.
The watchdog found that Vote Leave, which was the official campaign for leaving the EU during the referendum, and Darren Grimes, the founder of BeLeave, broke electoral law.
Evidence shows that BeLeave spent more than £675,000 with Aggregate IQ under a common plan with Vote Leave, which was not declared by the official Brexit campaign, leading to it exceeding its spending limit.
Vote Leave also returned an incomplete and inaccurate spending report, with nearly £234,501 reported incorrectly, and invoices missing for £12,849.99 of spending.
Grimes was found by the Commission to have committed two offences and has been fined £20,000. Grimes spent more than £675,000 on behalf of BeLeave, a non-registered campaigner that had a spending limit of £10,000. Further, the watchdog says he wrongly reported that same spending as his own.
The watchdog has now referred both David Halsall, the responsible person for Vote Leave, and Grimes to the Metropolitan Police in relation to false declarations of campaign spending and has shared its investigation files with the police.
Bob Posner, the Electoral Commission’s director of political finance and regulation and legal counsel, said: “The Electoral Commission has followed the evidence and conducted a thorough investigation into spending and campaigning carried out by Vote Leave and BeLeave.
“We found substantial evidence that the two groups worked to a common plan, did not declare their joint working and did not adhere to the legal spending limits.”
The breaches were “serious” Posner said, adding that parliament had put the laws in place to ensure fairness and transparency at elections and referendums.
Commenting on the investigation itself, Posner said: “Vote Leave has resisted our investigation from the start, including contesting our right as the statutory regulator to open the investigation. It has refused to cooperate, refused our requests to put forward a representative for interview, and forced us to use our legal powers to compel it to provide evidence.
“Nevertheless, the evidence we have found is clear and substantial, and can now be seen in our report.”
On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the watchdog’s chief executive Claire Bassett echoed Posner, saying: “Over a three-month period we actually made five attempts to interview Vote Leave and we were unable to.
“We have in fact issued a record fine for failure to cooperate with a statutory notice because we found it so difficult to get Vote Leave to work with us in this investigation.”
A Vote Leave spokesperson said the report contains “a number of false accusations and incorrect assertions that are wholly inaccurate and do not stand up to scrutiny”.
They said it was “astonishing” that none of the campaign was interviewed by the watchdog while it carried out its investigations.
The statement said that Vote Leave had repeatedly made it clear they would be willing to speak to the Commission.
The spokesperson continued: “Yet the Commission has interviewed the so-called ‘whistleblowers’ who have no knowledge of how Vote Leave operated and whose credibility has been seriously called into question.
“Vote Leave has provided evidence to the Electoral Commission proving there was no wrongdoing. And yet despite clear evidence of wrongdoing by the Remain campaign, the Commission has chosen to ignore this and refused to launch an investigation.”
“All this suggests that the supposedly impartial Commission is motivated by a political agenda rather than uncovering the facts. The Commission has failed to follow due process, and in doing so has based its conclusions on unfounded claims and conspiracy theories.
The spokesperson said that they will be considering all options available to them and are confident that the findings of the report will be overturned.
The investigation also found that the campaign group Veterans for Britain inaccurately reported a donation it received from Vote Leave. It has been fined £250.
There was no evidence that Veterans for Britain campaigned under a common plan with Vote Leave.