The organization behind a men-only British fundraising event, mired in scandal after female waiting staff were alleged to have been sexually harassed and degraded, has announced that it is disbanding.
The Presidents Club, which for 33 years has held an annual charity dinner in London, folded less than 24 hours after the Financial Times published a remarkable expose that claimed hostesses at the 2018 event last week were paraded for the pleasure of 360 male guests, subjected to lewd remarks and groped.
Revelations about the black-tie event, attended by top names from the fields of finance, politics and entertainment in the UK, prompted outrage a time when the issue of sexual harassment is in the spotlight.
Comedian David Walliams, the event’s emcee, said he was “appalled” by the report. Charities vowed to decline donations and the UK government said David Meller, a businessman who helped organize the event, had quit his post as a non-executive director at the Department for Education.
Anne Milton, an education minister, announced Meller’s resignation in the House of Commons. She said the behavior described was “totally unacceptable” and added: “Words fail me.” Meller has not responded to a CNN request for comment.
The UK Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, Nadhim Zahawi, who attended the event and whose position as a government minister was called into question, said he would never again accept an invitation to a men-only function. “I do unequivocally condemn this behavior. The report is truly shocking,” he wrote on Twitter.
‘Hands up skirts, hands on bums’
The allegations contained in the FT story prompted widespread horror as soon as they were published online Tuesday evening. Financial Times journalist Madison Marriage, one of two FT reporters who worked undercover as hostesses at the event, described being groped multiple times by guests. Many other hostesses among the 130 women hired for the night had told her of similar behavior and worse, she said.
“It was hands up skirts, hands on bums but also hands on hips, hands on stomachs, arms going around your waist unexpectedly,” she told the BBC’s Newsnight program.
Asked about what she had heard from other hostesses, she said: “The worst I was told by one of the hostesses was a man taking his penis out during the course of the dinner. The other one was another man telling a hostess to down her glass of champagne, rip off her knickers and dance on the table.”
According to the FT report, the women hired as hostesses were told to wear “BLACK sexy shoes” and black underwear. Short, tight, black dresses were provided, the FT said. At the start of the event, the hostesses were paraded on stage, the report said. They were paid £150 (about $213) for the evening’s work.
Auction items included lunch with UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and tea with Bank of England governor Mark Carney. Another lot offered the successful bidder plastic surgery either for himself or “to add spice to your wife,” the newspaper said.
Johnson, who did not attend, was unaware that a lunch with him was offered for auction, a Downing Street spokesman told CNN. “The Foreign Secretary had not agreed to support this event and knew nothing about the inclusion of a lunch with him in any auction,” the spokesman said.
Less than a day after the FT article was published, and as the criticism snowballed, the Presidents Club announced it was disbanding. “The trustees have decided that the Presidents Club will not host any further fundraising events,” it said in a statement released through the UK Press Association.
According to its website, the Presidents Club Charitable Trust was founded 33 years ago and has raised over £20 million (about $28 million) for underprivileged children. Dozens of charities have been recipients of donations over just the past decade.
“Remaining funds will be distributed in an efficient manner to children’s charities and it will then be closed,” the club said in its statement.
It had earlier told the FT that it was shocked at the claims. “The organizers are appalled by the allegations of bad behavior at the event asserted by the Financial Times reporters. Such behavior is totally unacceptable.”
Storm of criticism
In the aftermath of the bombshell report, various organizations named in the story rushed to distance themselves from the event. The Bank of England told CNN it had not approved any prize for auction, “nor would it have for that organization under its guidelines for charitable giving.”
London’s Dorchester hotel, where the dinner was held, said it was “deeply concerned” about the claims made regarding what it described as a private event. “We were not aware of any claims during or immediately following the charitable event,” it said in a statement provided to CNN.”We have zero tolerance of any form of harassment to our guests, employees and suppliers. We are in discussions with the organizers and an investigation is underway.”
Walliams, who emceed the event, tweeted that he was appalled by the reports about the dinner. “I agreed to host as it is one of the biggest charity fund raising events of the year. I was there in a strictly professional capacity and not as a guest,” he said.
“I left immediately after I had finished my presenting on stage at 11.30 p.m. I did not witness any of the kind of behavior that allegedly occurred and am absolutely appalled by the reports.”
Charities and businesses cut ties
The fate of the Presidents Club was sealed when charities who have benefited from its activities said they would no longer accept donations, and companies who booked tables at the dinner said they would not do so in future.
Great Ormond Street Hospital in London said it was shocked by the reported behavior and would return any past donations. “We would never knowingly accept donations raised in this way. We have had no involvement in the organization of this event, nor did we attend and we were never due to receive any money from it,” a spokeswoman said.
The hospital told CNN that it received £530,000 (about $753,000) in three separate donations in 2009 and 2016, and would give the money back.
Businesses that paid for tables at the charity dinner, including advertising giant WPP and spread-betting firm CMC Markets, said they would end their association with the event.
“WPP has traditionally sponsored a table at the Presidents Club dinner to support its fundraising for children’s charities. Neither the company nor our attendees were aware of the alleged incidents until informed of them by the Financial Times. WPP takes these reports very seriously and, while we will continue to support relevant charities, in light of the allegations we are ending our association with the event.”
“CMC did attend the event but has no plans to take a table in future,” the company said in a statement.
Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI, Britain’s biggest business lobby group, condemned the behavior described in the report, tweeting: “If even half of what’s been written about this event is true, it is deplorable. We want our young women to feel confident and respected in all walks of life. We can and must do better than this.”
Conservative MP Maria Miller, who chairs the Women and Equalities Select Committee in the House of Commons, said she hoped the FT expose would prompt a change in thinking.
“Let’s hope every man who attended this event will think twice before accepting another invitation to a ‘men only’ event with more than 100 female hostesses and an ad in the event brochure that states sexual harassment of staff is unacceptable,” she tweeted.
UK Chancellor Philip Hammond, speaking to CNN on Thursday in Davos, Switzerland, said the dinner had clearly been “a completely inappropriate forum” for charity fundraising.
“I think it’s the right decision to abandon it, I think it’s the right decision by the hospital to return money that it’s received from this organization. I think everybody will be glad to put this behind us and move on,” he said.
Asked how the financial industry could prevent a recurrence of this kind of behavior, Hammond responded: “By people not buying the tickets and not going to that type of event.”
CNN’s Anna Stewart, Livvy Doherty and Carol Jordan contributed to this report.