UK 'old boys' club rocked by sexual misconduct accusations

By Health CareAssociated Press

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.

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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 charities through an auction whose lots included tea with Bank of England Governor Mark Carney and lunch with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Representatives for both denied 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."

As senior politicians expressed outrage, repercussions were swift. The Presidents Club announced Wednesday that it would shut down after distributing its remaining funds to children's charities, and "will not host any further fundraising events."

One of the club's three trustees, David Meller, resigned as an adviser to Britain's Department for Education. Meller 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 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 to Oct. 31, 2016, the Presidents Club made or pledged 1.6 million pounds to charities, including 280,000 pounds to Great Ormond Street children's 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 newspaper said the hostesses were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before starting work.

The event 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," WPP said in a statement. It said it was ending its association with the event.

This year's dinner was hosted by comedian and children's author David Walliams, who said he didn't witness any misconduct but was "absolutely appalled by the reports."

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Jill Lawless contributed to this story.

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