An independent report has found Conservative councillor Tara Sherfield-Wong has “demonstrated a lack of commitment to the community for which she serves”. Her activities with Conservative Friends of America raise further questions over whose interests Councillor Sherfield-Wong is really serving – and she’s not the only Cornwall councillor who is part of this organisation. Tom Scott investigates.
Tara Sherfield-Wong was elected to Cornwall Council as Conservative councillor for Long Rock, Marazion and St Erth in May 2021. Earlier this year, five parish councils in her constituency complained that Ms Sherfield-Wong has been neglecting her duties to her constituents.
Last week, a report by Cornwall Council’s monitoring officer Simon Mansell found that Ms Sherfield-Wong has indeed been failing to live up to her responsibilities, in breach of the Council’s Code of Conduct:
“The complainants have set out that they consider the subject member has breached the Code of Conduct due to the fact she has not attended meetings of each of the parish councils on a regular basis, she has ignored emails and requests to attend important planning meetings have been ignored […]
“The independent person’s view is that, from the evidence seen, the subject member has, since being elected, demonstrated a lack of commitment to the community for which she serves.
“The independent person’s view is that, as a council member, Cllr Sherfield-Wong has in this matter failed to promote and support these principles by her leadership and example and has failed to act in a way that preserves public confidence.”
But while Ms Sherfield-Wong has shown scant interest in her constituents, she has been busy engaged elsewhere, notably as founder and chief executive of a curious organisation calling itself Conservative Friends of America (CFOA).
Speaking at the launch of the organisation at last year’s Conservative Party conference, Ms Sherfield-Wong declared that “The UK and US need to work together to defeat socialism, terrorism and now wokeism.”
Conservative Friends of America’s website sets out its objectives in rather less colourful language: “to strengthen and advance the historic relationship between the UK and the USA by promoting trade, business and constructive political discourse between the two nations”. It illustrates this relationship with a video showing heart-warming scenes of American presidents with British prime ministers, culminating in Theresa May gazing with seeming (though no doubt feigned) adoration at Donald Trump and Boris Johnson engaged in convivial conversation with the crook who tried to illegally overturn the result of the last US election.
The chair of Conservative Friends of America is Liam Fox, the disgraced former Defence Secretary and failed International Trade Secretary. In August, Fox wrote an article for the CFOA website in which he blamed the disaster in Afghanistan on “the British and European Left who have most opposed increased defence spending”.
The hard-right leader of the European Research Group, the Covid Recovery Group and the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, Steve Baker MP, is also associated with CFOA as one of its ‘parliamentary officers’, alongside disgraced former Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and Steve Double, MP for St Austell and Newquay. In a recent article on the organisation’s site, Baker enthuses about how Boris Johnson’s government is paving the way for a future trade deal with the US by “liberalising growth areas of the future including data reform, gene editing, medicine and transport”.
One can imagine only too well what such a trade deal would mean for the NHS and for British farmers. But it is clear that Baker does not expect this deal to be concluded with the Biden administration but with the Republican president he expects to succeed Biden:
“Conservatives and Republicans can prepare the territory for a ground-breaking free trade agreement, which sets the standard for the world. The next Republican administration can then conclude that agreement swiftly. I am delighted that Conservative Friends of America is rekindling these new relationships between our parties. Together we can engage with ambitious entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Who are these “ambitious entrepreneurs”, exactly? One of them would seem to be another co-founder of Conservative Friends of America, Russ Gerson.
Gerson is described on CFOA’s website as “an American businessman” who “has served on the Boards of Empower America, The Hudson Institute and was a founder Director of the Executive Board of the Republican Governors Association. He led John McCain’s Presidential Transition Planning, as well as advising Mitt Romney and Donald Trump’s transition planning efforts.”
Mr Gerson certainly has an interesting business history. A financial industry player, his group of companies was badly hit by the crash of 2007-8 and was then involved in numerous lawsuits, over issues including non-payment of fees. In a deposition to a US court in March 2013, Gerson admitted that the information publicly advertised about the Gerson group, which claimed to have locations in Washington, DC, New York and London, was not accurate, and that his small team “primarily only worked out of a corporate office in New York and may not have conducted actual business operations in the locations that they publicised on the company website”.
These setbacks did nothing to dampen Mr Gerson’s entrepreneurial spirit. In 2013, he co-founded Phoenix Star Capital with the flamboyant and scandal-ridden former Goldman Sachs executive Fred Eckert, with plans to launch “collateralised debt obligation and distressed debt funds”.
Collateralised debt obligations are the financial instruments that led to the financial crash of 2007-8, by disguising high-risk mortgage debt as a lucrative investment opportunity. ‘Distressed debt’ is a euphemism for one of the favourite activities of so-called ‘vulture capitalists’, and involves buying up the debt of struggling companies, at discount rates, often with a view to asset stripping these companies.
Phoenix Star Capital planned to to open a London office, as it saw particularly rich pickings to be made in the London market.
“There are good investment opportunities in bankruptcies in the UK,” Fred Eckert told Reuters.
These plans did not come to fruition, and in 2016 Forbes reported Eckert saying that Phoenix Star Capital “never became a viable business” and that its assets had been liquidated, amid law suits and claims of extravagant spending on the part of its proprietors. Still, perhaps this allowed more time for Gerson to assist with “Donald Trump’s transition planning efforts”.
Bizarrely, not one but two Conservative councillors from Cornwall are co-founders of Conservative Friends of America with Mr Gerson. Alongside Ms Sherfield-Wong is Richard Pears, Councillor for Mount Charles and Poltair and a member of the Council’s cabinet.
As Council portfolio-holder for ‘Customers’, Mr Pears is in responsible for, among other things, shareholder oversight of the Council’s companies, and for governance and assurance. One wonders whether he applies the same level of due diligence in this role as he did when setting up Conservative Friends of America with a figure like Russ Gerson.
Certainly, not everyone in Cornwall has been impressed by Councillor Pears’ honesty and integrity. Earlier this month he was accused of making ”misleading” statements over the closure of a popular swimming pool and sports centre in Falmouth.
Perhaps – like Councillor Sherfield-Wong, who has missed nearly half of her Cornwall Council meetings – Mr Pears was distracted by planning events hosted by Conservative Friends of America at this month’s Conservative Party Conference.
In the last few days, Ms Sherfield-Wong has been sharing material from CFOA events at the Blackpool conference, on both Twitter and LinkedIn. Among her LinkedIn friends ‘liking’ one of these posts is one Hicham Felter, a “political and commercial campaign consultant” who previously worked as International Campaign Manager at the now notorious Cambridge Analytica. Felter also worked on Boris Johnson’s party leadership campaign.
It would be easy to dismiss CFOA as a fringe outfit on the far right edge of the Conservative Party, fronted up by two rather obscure Conservative councillors with the help of a gaggle of discredited hard-right Tory MPs. But it appears to have powerful friends with considerable weight within the party, including Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
It’s not hard to understand how a figure like Russ Gerson, who has built his career partly by profiting from corporate bankruptcies, might find that his interests coincide with those of Brexiters like Steve Baker and Liam Fox, whose pursuit of a hard Brexit has contributed to a great many companies in the UK becoming vulnerable to ‘distressed debt’ specialists from the other side of the Atlantic.
Nor can it be doubted that tearing up regulations protecting public health provision, environmental standards and food safety would create the ideal conditions for US corporate predators to move aggressively into the UK market.
But one wonders how the people of Cornwall feel about their elected representatives’ involvement with Conservative Friends of America – especially when one of these representatives has clearly been neglecting the interests of her own constituents.
Perhaps they are owed an explanation.