A serving Luton councillor has been found guilty of falsifying a document in an attempt to trick a trading standards officer from his OWN authority.
Mohammed Ashraf, 59, fabricated the document to give the impression that his firm, Luton Travel Services, was covered by Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing (ATOL).
Cllr Ashraf, who was previously Luton Borough Council’s portfolio holder for trading standards, has also been convicted of four other charges relating to breaches of ATOL and unfair trading regulations.
He was cleared of one alleged breach of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.
A trial at Luton Magistrates’ Court heard that during an investigation into Luton Travel Services in January 2015, Cllr Ashraf was visited by three trading standards officers.
They told him to remove references to Pakistan International Airlines from within the store, as an affiliation with the firm had concluded in 2011.
The 59-year-old, who served on the council’s executive as recently as May 2015, was also told to remove ATOL numbers as his licence had expired in September 2013.
A key piece of evidence presented during the trial was a sub agency agreement between Cllr Ashraf’s travel agency and Masterfare – a company which provides ATOL protected packages.
The court heard that in March 2015 Cllr Ashraf handed a document to LBC trading standards officer Michael Smith, which indicated that his compant had struck a sub agency deal on October 4, 2013 – four days after Luton Travel Services’ ATOL protection expired.
If valid, this agreement would have meant that Cllr Ashraf’s customers would have had ATOL protection through Masterfare.
However Masterfare manager Shiela Mahadia told the court that the document had been faked and that a deal between the two companies was not in place until March 24, 2014.
Cllr Ashraf claimed that he did not give the document to Mr Smith, but that he did provide one that was dated in 2014.
Mr Smith dismissed the suggestion as ‘nonsense’.
Charlene Sumnall, prosecuting, said the claim was a “bare and bold faced lie” which was made in a “clear attempt to obstruct the investigation”.
While giving evidence Cllr Ashraf told the court that in November 2013 he reached a deal to merge with Sky High Travel, a company run by his next door neighbour Imrak Choudhury.
He said that at the time of the trading standards investigation he was not in charge of Luton Travel Services, but was merely helping with the handover to Mr Choudhury.
However the court heard that to this date the planned merger, and later takeover, has not gone through and that Cllr Ashraf still owns Luton Travel Services.
During the visit by LBC trading standards officers in January 2015 Cllr Ashraf filled out a questionnaire in which he stated that he was the ‘proprietor’ of the firm.
When asked by Ms Sumnall why he did not tell officers that Mr Choudhury owned the firm, Cllr Ashraf told magistrates: “Having been in that place for the last 23 years I hadn’t thought about that, I put it down without thinking.”
During a fiery cross examination he was repeatedly forced to deny that he was tailoring his evidence and making it up as he went along to fit witness accounts.
Cllr Ashraf told Ms Sumnall: “That is exactly not what I am doing, I have been bearing the thrust of your questions and you have been treating me like dirt.
“I will be seeking advice on that.”
When asked if he believed he did anything wrong, Cllr Ashraf added: “If I have done anything wrong it was not deliberate.
“There was no intention of misleading or doing anything wrong.”
Each of the charges Cllr Ashraf has been convicted of carry a maximum fine of £5,000.
He also faces a bill of £6,401 in prosecution costs.
After the verdicts were passed down the court heard that at present Cllr Ashraf receives between £500-£600 a month in allowances from Luton Borough Council.
Despite this magistrates were told that he will need a ‘substantial’ amount of time to pay his fines.
He has offered to pay £40 a month.
After the allegations first came to light last year Cllr Ashraf was suspended from the Labour Party, but at the time of writing he remains a serving councillor.