Bribes, Blind Eyes and Corruption At The Airport.
Gatwick Airport and Sussex police ignored whistleblowing claims of bribery and corruption and left a critical part of the national infrastructure exposed to organised crime and terrorism for six years, The Upsetter can reveal.
Private detectives eventually stepped in and launched an undercover operation into an allegedly corrupt network behind Gatwick’s official airport transfer service, the only taxi company allowed to operate inside the international airport.
The private sleuths, who were called in by the overseas owners of the taxi firm, feared that terrorists and drug traffickers were also using the network to infiltrate Gatwick Airport.
A 108-page dossier of evidence concluded that, “an organised criminal network has been operating with alacrity for so long within [Gatwick Airport].”
The private detectives claimed to have uncovered “a well-oiled conspiracy to blackmail” and “good evidence” of local government corruption.
The dossier was passed to Sussex police, who refused to explain why whistleblowing allegations in 2015 were ignored but confirmed that an investigation is now underway.
In a statement, the force said:
“A thorough investigation is being carried out by officers from the Sussex Police Economic Crime Unit into potential criminal offences related to the operation of a private car hire company in the North Sussex area between 2013 and 2019. The investigation is complex and we have been working closely with the Crown Prosecution Service.”
Over one hundred drivers, mainly from Asian backgrounds, spoke out about having to pay bribes of up to £35,000 in cash to the taxi company boss if they wanted to work at Gatwick.
They say part of the bribe money went to local council officers overseeing the licencing system who passed drivers barely able to speak English or navigate the road system.
The dossier includes witness statements, emails, secret recordings and a confession from a key figure inside the network.
Until recently, the insider was a senior manager at Gatwick Cars, the official taxi firm with the exclusive multi-million pound contact to operate at the airport.
The manager admitted receiving a hefty six-figure commission from bribes that drivers had paid to his boss. He added that a Crawley council licensing officer who oversaw the testing regime for taxi drivers also took bribes.
Documents show that Gatwick Airport and Sussex police were first made aware of the corruption allegations by unionised drivers six years ago.
The airport allowed the taxi boss to investigate and exonerate himself before renewing the £2m contract with Gatwick Cars.
The taxi boss is wanted by the police for questioning but has left the country, his father said.
Mick Randall, one of the private investigators, said the relationship between the airport, local council and police was very “cosy” and that could explain why nothing was done for so long.
“With Freedom Day around the corner and Gatwick Airport a key hub for cheap flights to Europe and an important part of the local economy its not hard to see why the whistleblowers claims were swept under the runway.”
Person of Interest
Before the global coronavirus pandemic, an average of 125,000 passengers used Gatwick Airport every day.
Most were met by uniformed drivers from the official, and only, taxi company allowed to operate inside the airport’s north and south terminals.
Passengers tend to feel safer knowing they are paying a fixed fee to an authorised taxi firm using vetted drivers with access to a stylish fleet of black Mercedes and Teslas.
David Kemp, 73, was delighted when in 2010 Gatwick Airport chose his bid over other local firms.
Winning the 6-year contract was a crowning achievement, he said. “Once you’ve got Gatwick it’s the icing on the cake.”
By then, Kemp had been in the taxi business for forty years and during that time he said rivals had firebombed his family home and various offices around Surrey and Sussex.
Kemp also revealed that for most of his career he had been “a person of interest” to the police. In other words, someone the police believed may be involved or know about criminality. The tip off, he said, had come from a police contact.
The awarding of the contract to the Kemp family raises questions about the vetting procedures at Gatwick Airport, which is part of the critical national infrastructure and therefore vulnerable to terrorist attack and organised criminals trying to smuggle drugs and other contraband.
In 2011 Kemp set up Gatwick Cars Limited to handle the airport contract and installed his eldest son James as director. His other son and daughter were also employed at the firm.
The first two years were lucrative. Kemp said his family worked closely with Gatwick Airport managers to “break” any strike action by the 240 self-employed drivers he had on the books.
“The profits were absolutely fabulous for ourselves and for Gatwick,” Kemp recalled.
An international consortium of private investors, runs Gatwick Airport with a licence from the Civil Aviation Authority.
Gatwick Airport Limited, the consortium’s UK registered company that awards the taxi concession, takes a percentage of every fare.
Kemp said the airport managers ran the show and his family danced to their tune. “You have to report to Gatwick every week with the figures and if you don’t you are out.”
But by 2013 his health was failing and he decided to sell the lucrative concession to a multi-millionaire Indian couple who lived in Dubai but were thinking of moving to London.
MGT Group, the couple’s logistics company, was already in the transport business and worked with the US government and United Nations on defence contracts across the Middle East.
Ashok and Manju Puri were looking for a profitable turnkey project in the UK that could be run by a reliable individual while they organised their retirement plans.
They saw the potential of partnering their defence contractor clients and airlines with Gatwick Cars.
A price of £2.05m was agreed for the airport concession and three other taxi firms that David Kemp owned. A key condition of the sale was that his three children were kept on.
The Puris took over the Gatwick concession in 2013 with little due diligence. But Manju Puri said in a witness statement that she insisted on ending the Kemps’ old accounting practise of “thousands of pounds in cash being counted out on an office table or from a cardboard box.”
James Kemp, she said, was given “complete scope” to the run the Gatwick concession as he saw fit for an annual salary of £80,000 with performance bonuses.
One of his first moves as managing director was to set up EVO, a new taxi company in Sussex.
He told the Puris it would also act as a “feeder firm” and training ground for drivers eventually considered good enough to work exclusively at Gatwick, where they could make a lot more money.
The taxi concession delivered healthy returns for the Puris. But in February 2015 the couple received “disconcerting” claims that EVO was in fact part of a corrupt scheme that could ruin their reputation in London and Dubai.
Five Asian drivers had signed statements alleging that James Kemp was using “agents” to solicit a £35,000 cash bribe to work at Gatwick.
The whistleblowing drivers refused to pay but gave representatives of Unite, the union, the names of those who they believed had.
One driver said in his statement:
“In the last two months thirteen drivers have joined [Gatwick] cars on a permanent basis. I truly believe and know that if they were investigated by the police, and if a thorough investigation was done by looking at their financial history and bank accounts, the truth would prevail! That every one of those driver have paid bribes of £35,000 cash to an acting agent on behalf of Mr James Kemp.”
The whistleblowers said Kemp used Pakistani and Sri Lankan drivers as agents to groom those looking to move from EVO to Gatwick.
They would be offered a few days work at the airport to taste the earning potential of up to £500 per day.
The agents would then encourage these EVO drivers to borrow money to pay a cash bribe to Kemp and secure their permanent place at Gatwick Cars.
Those who agreed pooled money from within their extended families in the Crawley area where a large British Asian community lives.
“They were selling jewellery, using family contacts and re-mortgaging the house to raise money,” one Asian community leader told The Upsetter.
Unite immediately notified senior management at Gatwick Airport in November 2014. Internal emails show the airport’s response was to allow Kemp to investigate himself.
He subsequently produced signed retractions from drivers, which were accepted at face value without the airport conducting any independent checks.
The Puris only found all this out when Paul Martin, a Unite member, emailed them about the “whitewash” in February 2015.
No wonder the Puris described Kemp’s attitude as “cavalier” when they called to ask what the hell was going on.
Martin, a long serving driver at Gatwick Airport, summed it up in a follow up email.
“So the man accused of selling jobs to these guys is then allowed to collect statements from them personally and [Gatwick] accept that as OK? James Kemp is an uncompromising bully, what the fuck did they think these guys would do if he asked them to sign a letter vindicating him. What a fuckin’ joke!!!”
Although Kemp was in the clear with Gatwick Airport, the Puris said they continued to receive claims from inside the taxi firm that he was still acting corruptly.
In her statement, Manju Puri said:
“It is also clear to me from a number of email messages and calls I received from the financial controller that James was continuing to accept bribes from drivers and took a wholly autocratic stance when dealing with staff.”
The Puris did not act on this information until after Gatwick Airport renewed the taxi concession in 2017. Kemp, it appears, was very important to a successful bid because of his personal relations with some Gatwick managers.
By 2018, the Dubai-based owners were feeling out-manoeuvred by their managing director, who had his contract renewed with a clause slipped in that made him indivisible from the Gatwick contract.
The Puris wanted to take back control so they launched a secret internal investigation into Kemp.
To execute this they turned to a former Scotland Yard assistant commissioner.
Tarique Ghaffur was living in Dubai and advising the interior ministry of the United Arab Emirate when he met the Puris in mid-2018.
After considering their problem it was agreed he would go undercover in Gatwick Cars to try and verify the bribery and corruption claims.
Ghaffur’s arrival as a manager was not well received by the Kemps. They suspected he was preparing the company for sale. In fact, drivers were being taken aside for a discreet chat.
Ghaffur was initially concerned that terrorists within the south Asian communities may have infiltrated Gatwick through the bribes-for-taxi jobs scam.
He passed a list of drivers to Sussex police to check against counter-terrorism databases. Word came back that none of them were on the police or MI5’s radar.
Manju Puri said she was alarmed when Ghaffur reported back that Kemp had used a “kangaroo court” to sack troublemakers and union members. It was being claimed that room had to be made at Gatwick for drivers willing to pay the bribes by sacking others.
It also emerged from Ghaffur’s inquiries that Gatwick Cars employed Allan Anslow, a former Sussex policeman, as its compliance officer in charge of complaints and discipline hearings.
According to Manju Puri’s statement, Anslow was “a ghost” in the company’s system and James Kemp had arranged for his salary to be paid to his wife.
Anslow told The Upsetter he was a “friend” of the Kemps and had worked unpaid for seven years as their compliance officer.
He denied any wrongdoing but along with his wife refused to explain her role in the taxi firm. Anslow said he was “naïve” and had only found out about the bribery and corruption after leaving Gatwick Cars during the Ghaffur investigation.
Anslow said he was very angry that James Kemp had duped him and demanded an explanation from him, but wouldn’t say what was discussed at the meeting.
Lack of Knowledge
The biggest breakthrough, however, came in July 2019 when the man who had introduced the Puris to the Kemps and worked as a manager at Gatwick Cars confessed to his part in the bribery racket.
Alan Willis admitted in a letter that he had received approximately £95,000 from James Kemp as his commission on cash bribes from drivers. He personally collected three tranches of £5000 from one driver and gave it to the taxi boss, he said in the letter.
According to Willis, Kemp was also paying a former Sussex policeman who was now working as a taxi licensing officer at Crawley Council.
The licencing officer, he said, took bribes of between £1000 and £5000 to ensure a driver passed the ‘knowledge’ test, which was necessary to qualify for a Gatwick licence plate.
Some of those willing to pay a bribe for a place at Gatwick Cars could barely speak English and lacked any knowledge of the local roads and main arteries out of Crawley.
It was alleged these candidates sat at a seat in the council exam room beyond the CCTV camera and were told to complete the ‘knowledge’ test as best as they could but not to send the electronic multiple choice form. The licensing officer would correct answers and press send to ensure a pass.
This fiddling of the official licencing exam was part of a “complete package” Kemp offered those who paid him £35,000, Willis suggested.
He also claimed that Kemp maintained close relationships with several senior managers at Gatwick Airport.
Before leaving the company in November 2019, Willis wrote to the Puris:
“I know what I have done was wrong and there are no excuses. I should never of kept quiet. I was told to keep quiet by James and Dave. They seem to believe they are untouchable.”
The Puris now felt there was enough evidence to confront James Kemp. At a hotel in Gatwick, he denied the bribery claims but days later offered to resign if he received a £140,000 pay off.
The Puris were willing to let Kemp walk away without fuss for half this amount. But then decided to suspend him for gross misconduct related to “bribery and corruption, fraud and theft.”
As word got out, more drivers came forward to Ghaffur’s team of ex-Scotland Yard investigators. Over 180 eventually talked to the private sleuths, some even provided secret recordings of the payment system in action.
Meanwhile a lawyer acting for Kemp wrote to the Puris saying her client denied wrongdoing and would be calling senior Gatwick Airport managers in his defence.
The legal letter was contradicted weeks later when David Kemp also emailed the Puris in early October 2019 appearing to admit his son had “cleverly taken money from new drivers” wanting to work at Gatwick.
Later that month James Kemp was sacked after failing to appear at his disciplinary hearing. He did not appeal but left the country suffering from stress, his father told The Upsetter.
It was now time for Ghaffur and his investigators to confront the relevant authorities with his findings.
Natalie Brahma-Pearl, Crawley Borough Council’s chief executive, was passed a file outlining the case against the licencing officer said to be taking bribes in return for faking the knowledge test.
The council had known about this allegation since 2015, when Unite complained. But a spokesperson refused to answer any questions about whether the licensing officer had ever faced any disciplinary action. It is understood he was allowed to retire.
The council spokesperson said:
“We take these allegations extremely seriously and strongly refute the notion that we have swept them under the carpet; we have cooperated fully with Sussex Police throughout this process.”
Gatwick Airport said it had acted “appropriately” by asking James Kemp to investigate the bribery claims and report back.
A spokesperson for the airport said:
“At no time in our dealing with Gatwick Cars has Gatwick [Airport] breached its robust bribery and corruption policies. There is no conflict of interest with the Kemp family with any employee who is or has worked in connection with the contract.”
Sussex police said it launched an investigation in January 2020 shortly after receiving the 108-page dossier from Ghaffur’s investigators.
The dossier raises question about why the force did not investigate earlier detailed complaints from Unite in 2015 and from a Muslim community leader in 2017.
The community leader asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from those who paid bribes. He said Sussex police were given up to 40 names of drivers who had paid bribes to work at Gatwick.
“We said ask any of these people any of the roads in Crawley and I can guarantee they will not know because they are straight from the boat and straight into Gatwick Airport.”
Mick Randall, the private investigator who briefed Sussex police, said: “Information was given to them on a plate years ago but for some reason they were not doing their job. We feel the police are still dragging their feet.”
Willis, Anslow and David Kemp said Sussex police had not spoken to them.
Willis now says he confessed to the corruption on several occasions in order to keep his job with the Puris. He declined to explain how confessing to criminal offences would have guaranteed him a job. Willis said he’d withdrawn his confession in a letter to his lawyer but declined to provide it.
David Kemp denied he or James, 44, did anything wrong. He said:
“My son got stitched up because the Puris became greedier and greedier. Nothing wrong with that; they are all very nice people. We are probably the most respected family in the cab game and overnight that arsehole Ghaffur blackened our name.”
Video footage has emerged of James Kemp looking tanned and relaxed riding a tuk-tuk somewhere overseas with a blond in the back. He did not respond to a request for an interview.
His father said the police also want to speak with James, who he confirms is overseas with a new Brazilian wife. He refused to say where his son was, but admitted the family has property interests in Tobago.
Gatwick Airport are understood to have recently extended the Puris’ taxi contract. The owners declined to comment.
The business of air travel and transfer goes on as the government lifts all lockdown restrictions on Monday.
And so it goes.