UK 'old boys' club rocked by sexual misconduct accusations

FILE - This is a June 10, 2014 file photo of the Dorchester hotel in London. Senior lawmakers in Britain's Parliament on Wedneday Jan. 24, 2018 demanded tougher laws against harassment, after a Financial Times investigation found that women were groped at a men-only charity gala attended by hundreds of senior executives. Last week's event at London's Dorchester Hotel, which was held to raise money for charities, featured some 100 female hostesses, including two undercover FT reporters. (Philip Toscano/PA, File via AP)

LONDON — Britain's financial "old boys" club was rocked by its own sexual harassment scandal Wednesday after a Financial Times investigation found that female hostesses were groped at a men-only charity gala attended by hundreds of senior executives.

Last week's event at London's Dorchester Hotel featured about 100 female hostesses who were required to wear short skirts and high heels. The hostesses included two undercover FT reporters, who described harassment, lewd comments and "repeated requests to join diners in bedrooms elsewhere in the Dorchester."

"It is quite extraordinary to me that in the 21st century allegations of this kind are emerging," Education Minister Anne Milton told the House of Commons after lawmakers requested an urgent discussion of the matter. "Women have the right to feel safe wherever they work and allegations of this type of behavior are completely unacceptable."

The event, organized by a group called the Presidents Club, raised money for charity through an auction that included items such as tea with Bank of England Gov. Mark Carney and lunch with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Representatives for both of them deny any knowledge of the prizes.

One lot offered a strip club trip with the first lap dance for free, a glass of champagne and a smoked salmon bagel. Another provided a chance for plastic surgery at a private clinic, with the promise to "take years off your life or add spice to your wife."

Repercussions were swift. David Meller, who chaired the event, will no longer serve as a non-executive director of the Department for Education, Milton said. Meller, one of the Presidents Club's three trustees, is joint chairman of the Meller Group, which supplies jewelry, beauty products and housewares to British shops.

Labour Party lawmaker Jess Phillips, who brought the issue to the House of Commons, welcomed news that Meller was standing down.

"What happened is that women were bought as bait for men who were rich men, not a mile from where we stand, as if that is an acceptable behavior," she told lawmakers. "It is totally unacceptable."

The FT reported that the female hostesses were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before starting work.

The fury comes at a time of reckoning for many men in positions of power as women speak out about sexual misconduct following the scandal surrounding Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Women rallied on three continents over the weekend to demand equality and to mark the anniversary of the inauguration of President Donald Trump, whose election in 2016 sparked the first wave of mass protests by women.

The Presidents Club dinner is an annual event for a group that claims it has raised around 20 million pounds ($28 million) for children's charities over the past 33 years.

In the year ended Oct. 31, 2016, the Presidents Club made or pledged 1.6 million pounds to charities, including 280,000 pounds to Great Ormond Street Hospital, according to the most recent accounts filed with the Charity Commission for England and Wales. The group's income for the same period totaled 2.05 million pounds, with 1.59 million pounds coming from that year's charity gala.

But raising that money wasn't cheap. The accounts show that the Presidents Club spent 597,790 pounds on the 2016 charity event.

Great Ormond Street Hospital and Evelina London Children's Hospital said they would return previous donations and sever ties with the Presidents Club.

The FT reported that women working at this year's black-tie event were given short, tight, black dresses, black high heels and a black belt resembling a corset. They told of men repeatedly putting hands up their skirts and said one attendee exposed his penis to a hostess.

"Some of the behavior was pretty shocking, quite depressing, if I am honest," reporter Madison Marriage said in a video about her work on the story.

The event, hosted by comedian and children's author David Walliams, has featured some of the biggest names in British business, sports and media. Among them was WPP, the FTSE 100-listed advertising conglomerate, which has traditionally sponsored a table at the event.

"Neither the company nor our attendees were aware of the alleged incidents until informed of them by the Financial Times," the company said in a statement. "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."

The organizers of the event promised an investigation.

"Such behavior is totally unacceptable," the Presidents Club said in a statement. "The allegations will be investigated fully and promptly and appropriate action taken."

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