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A mega-gift for an HBCU college fell through. Here's what happened — and what's next

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A mega-gift for an HBCU college fell through. Here's what happened — and what's next

Florida A&M University announced a “transformative” donation earlier this month — but the school said it ceased contact with the donor after questions arose about the funds.

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Florida A&M University announced a "transformative" donation earlier this month — but the school ceased contact with the donor after questions arose about the funds. Image shows shrubbery and landscaping around a large sign for the college in Tallahassee, Fla.

Florida A&M University announced a “transformative” donation earlier this month — but the school said it ceased contact with the donor after questions arose about the funds.

Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Transformative financial donations don’t come along often in higher education. So when a donor promised a $237.75 million gift to Florida A&M University, school officials were understandably excited.

The donor was Gregory Gerami, a 30-year-old businessman from Texas who said he wanted to make sure the historically Black school’s windfall would help students who needed the money most. Funds were also designated for FAMU’s athletics department.

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“This is more than $100 million more than we have currently in our endowment,” FAMU President Larry Robinson said as he unveiled the donation at the school’s spring commencement ceremony in Tallahassee, Fla. “This is just incredible.”

But amazement at the large gift soon gave way to shock as questions arose about Gerami’s donation. And as word of the surprise donation spread, FAMU leaders were confronted with news reports that linked Gerami to an earlier transformative gift to another school — a donation that never came to fruition.

In an interview with NPR, Gerami refused to confirm or deny his role in that earlier donation to a university in South Carolina. As for FAMU, Gerami says he fulfilled his part of the arrangement.

But FAMU’s Robinson now says it was a mistake to accept Gerami’s gift — and the school’s board wants to know why Robinson and a small circle in his administration agreed to keep the donation a secret.

The fallout has begun: Robinson said last Wednesday that Shawnta Friday-Stroud, who as the vice president for university advancement played a key role in the donation, was resigning from that post. She will retain her job as dean of the school of business and industry, he said.

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Mysterious graduation speaker announces a massive gift

Gerami announced the donation during a May 4 commencement ceremony, in an elaborate event where he delivered a fairly standard graduation speech — before giving Robinson a belt buckle and saying he should buckle up for what was coming.

As a gigantic nine-figure check was brought onto the stage, the PA system played a montage of songs, including The O’Jays’ “For The Love of Money” and “Grateful” by Hezekiah Walker.

About the $237.75 million donation, Gerami told the crowd: “By the way, the money is in the bank.”

Friday-Stroud later said that Gerami’s speech was his idea. And last week, Robinson, the university president, apologized for the event, saying it’s something that should not have happened.

The university has removed the video of the commencement from its YouTube page, along with other mentions of the donation from its website and social media channels.

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Gregory Gerami stands with Florida A&M University President Larry Robinson and other leaders at a commencement ceremony on May 4, unveiling a large donation. Robinson now says the announcement shouldn't have happened.

Gregory Gerami stands with Florida A&M University President Larry Robinson and other leaders at a commencement ceremony on May 4, unveiling a large donation. Robinson now says the announcement shouldn’t have happened.

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Gregory Gerami stands with Florida A&M University President Larry Robinson and other leaders at a commencement ceremony on May 4, unveiling a large donation. Robinson now says the announcement shouldn't have happened.

Gregory Gerami stands with Florida A&M University President Larry Robinson and other leaders at a commencement ceremony on May 4, unveiling a large donation. Robinson now says the announcement shouldn’t have happened.

FAMU/Screenshot by NPR

How the events unfolded

After the May 4 commencement, skeptics such as Jerell Blakeley, writing for the Education News Flash Substack on May 6, raised questions about Gerami, highlighting news reports connecting him to at least one earlier big college donation that fell apart.

FAMU then put the donation on pause, with Kristin Harper, chair of the board of trustees, stating in a public meeting on May 10 that “serious concerns have been raised regarding the validity of the gift, the adequacy of the due diligence processes and whether the foundation board and board of trustees have been provided ample oversight opportunity.”

Last week, Robinson said engagement with Gerami had “ceased,” and he began referring to the gift as a “proposed donation” that was stopped in its tracks.

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As the school’s foundation and board of trustees held public Zoom meetings to discuss the matter, more details about the donation emerged:

  • While Gerami said the money was “in the bank,” Friday-Stroud said the donation was made in the form of 15 million shares of stock in Batterson Farms, Gerami’s privately held company.
  • As for the gift amount of $237.75 million, Friday-Stroud told FAMU’s foundation on May 9 that the sum reflected the stock being valued at $15.85 a share. But in that board meeting, it also emerged that FAMU did not have a third party analyze the valuation.
  • When asked why FAMU hadn’t independently verified the stock’s value during discussions about the donation, Friday-Stroud said a decision was made to hold off on a third-party valuation of the stock until the university’s annual financial audit, scheduled for early summer.
  • Friday-Stroud said that she and Robinson were among the people who signed nondisclosure agreements requiring them to keep the donation secret from other leaders. She also cited donors’ rights to privacy and confidentiality under state law.
  • Robinson says he didn’t tell the chair of either the school’s foundation or board of trustees, who have legal and financial oversight for the institution, because he was worried that doing so might “jeopardize this transformational donation.”

Friday-Stroud told the foundation board that Gerami contacted the university in the fall of 2023 about making a donation. After an initial wealth screening review, she said, “a more expansive second screening” of Gerami made the small circle of FAMU officials aware of potential concerns — “pretty much all of which is what has been put out now in social media,” she said, seemingly referring to reports alleging Gerami was linked to failed donations to South Carolina’s Coastal Carolina University and another school.

But around the same time officials became aware of those allegations, Friday-Stroud said, Gerami’s stock certificates were transferred to the university’s account. She and Robinson discussed the matter and chose to move forward, she said. The school recently released the gift agreement it signed with Gerami, listing the transaction as taking place in April.

“I wanted it to be real and ignored the warning signs along the way,” Robinson told the board of trustees on May 15. But it wasn’t until after the donation was announced, he said, that he decided “engagement with Mr. Gerami should cease.”

“I take full responsibility for this matter and ensuing fallout. I apologize,” Robinson said.

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Board members are now seeking an investigation into how the donation became a debacle, including the university president’s failure to disclose the deal to the board before commencement, the nondisclosure agreements, the donor-vetting process, and other questions about who knew what about the deal, and when.

Gerami responds to the allegations

“The stock was transferred [to FAMU] and that’s really all that I have to say,” Gerami said in an interview with NPR, adding that his gift agreement with FAMU was made public.

He also said he’s the subject of stories that are inaccurate, without identifying any information that was incorrect.

His remarks to NPR are in reference to news stories that emerged in 2020, when Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., announced a $95 million donation pledge. But within a few months, the school said it had “ended its relationship with an anonymous donor who …. has not fulfilled an early expectation of the arrangement.”

In an email to NPR, the university refused to confirm or deny the donor’s identity. But The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., reported that the donor was Gerami, citing data gained from a Freedom of Information Act request, its own research and multiple interviews with him.

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“Gerami reluctantly confirmed he was the donor,” the paper reported last June, adding that in Gerami’s telling, he pulled the plug on the deal because he felt disrespected by some Coastal Carolina officials, alleging racism in one instance.

When NPR asked him about the Coastal Carolina University donation, Gerami acknowledged knowing about the gift, which he called “a planned gift.”

He also gave NPR conflicting accounts of what his ties to the gift were. At one point, he said “I don’t know who the donor at Coastal is” and “There’s no documentation to show that I’m the donor at Coastal.” Moments later, he said “I’m not going to confirm or deny that I’m the donor at Coastal.”

Coastal Carolina’s initial statement about the proposed gift, which is no longer on its website, said its new donor was also a supporter of Miles College, a private HBCU in Alabama. But, The Sun News reported last year, “Gerami said a planned donation to Miles College was also never made.”

Officials from Miles College did not reply to NPR’s requests for comment.

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When NPR asked Gerami why — if he wasn’t the donor at Coastal Carolina — he didn’t seek a correction to last year’s Sun News article, Gerami replied, “that story did not carry much weight … it didn’t pick up much traction. … So why would I feed into that traction? … I didn’t feel like I needed to jump in there.”

“I have no issues with Coastal,” he said. Later, he added, “I don’t have any issues with anyone that is out there. So no, I’m not going to touch on things just because somebody writes a story.”

When asked how he feels about FAMU ending its plan for a donation from him, Gerami replied, “Things are being taken out of context.” He ended the conversation shortly afterward.

What we know about Gerami’s business

In his speech at FAMU, Gerami said he had overcome “formidable challenges,” including being born with an opiate addiction and fetal alcohol syndrome and diagnosed with cerebral palsy and ADHD. He was raised by a foster family, he said, after being born to “a single mother who was 24 with eight kids,” according to NPR’s transcript of the now removed video.

In portions of their commencement-day remarks that closely echoed each other, Gerami and Robinson mentioned two mentors: an unidentified Merrill Lynch banker; and a former Arlington, Texas, mayor named Robert Cluck (who did not reply to NPR’s requests for comment).

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In 2015, Gerami ran for public office, challenging an incumbent city council member in Arlington, Texas. He finished a distant fourth, trailing a university student and a part-time mail carrier.

Then, in recent years, came reports linking him to eye-popping college donations.

At FAMU, Gerami didn’t go into much detail about how he purportedly accrued a fortune. He said only that he had harnessed his “entrepreneurial spirit, transforming a small lawn care business into a successful property management company” before becoming the founder and CEO of Batterson Farms Corp.

Batterson grows industrial hemp in warehouses, using hydroponics, Gerami said during this speech. The venture also researches bioplastics and “cultivating industrial hemp for cancer research,” he added.

Batterson Farms has a website, but it offers few details about the company’s scale. The only available product it lists is HempWood, a composite material produced by a company in Kentucky that says all its hemp fiber is grown within 100 miles of its location in that state. NPR reviewed Batterson Farms’ public Facebook page and records from the Texas Department of Agriculture to learn more about Gerami’s company.

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On its Facebook page, Batterson Farms displays its license as a hemp producer in Texas. The company also says it operates multiple Texas locations, including in Van Horn; the Dallas area; Austin; San Antonio; Houston; and El Paso. In April 2023, Gerami was featured in a news story in Lubbock, Texas, saying his company had taken control of seven warehouses on 114 acres of land to grow hemp there.

In response to a records request from NPR, the Texas Department of Agriculture Hemp Program said on Monday that it has a contact address for Batterson Farms in San Antonio, and a business address in Austin, and that there is “no registered hemp production” at those locations.

The state agency confirmed that Batterson Farms has a current hemp producer license (the first step in the state’s commercial hemp licensing process), and a lot crop permit, both of which are tied to an address in Paradise, a small town in Wise County, northwest of Fort Worth.

“A Hemp Producer is required to purchase a lot crop permit anytime they plan to grow hemp under the TDA Hemp Program. A lot crop permit is good for one hemp crop,” according to the Texas agriculture department, which also confirmed that this location is registered to grow hemp.

“Batterson Farms Corp does not have any other license or permit with the TDA Hemp Program,” the agency said. The company isn’t on the state’s most recent list of hemp processors, for instance.

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The agency also said that it “does not have any information for [Batterson Farms] locations in Van Horn, TX; Dallas County, TX; Houston, TX; or El Paso, TX.”

The available information provided few details about whether Gerami’s company is operating at a scale making its stock worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

At the time of publication, Gerami had not responded to NPR’s request for more information about his donation and his business.

What does this mean for Florida A&M University now?

It’s an embarrassing setback for FAMU, at a time when its leaders are touting the school’s successes as one of the country’s top HBCUs and in fundraising and sports.

HBCU institutions have been getting more money as donors realize their importance in preparing Black Americans for success, Amir Pasic, the dean of Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, told NPR. In his view, it makes sense to invest in a school like FAMU.

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“Spelman in particular just a few months ago got a $100 million gift,” he said. “And Mackenzie Scott has been investing in HBCU and community colleges as well.”

But, Pasic added, the school should have been alerted to a potential problem due to how quickly the mammoth gift proposal took shape, in only about six months.

“It is rare that these gifts aren’t part of a long-term conversation that donors have had over multiple years and sometimes even decades with the university,” he said, particularly from a first-time donor.

Pasic said he agrees that the now-canceled donation would have been “transformative” for FAMU. He also has ideas about the fallout for FAMU and what its leaders should do now.

“It’s something of an embarrassment. But on the other hand, I think the silver lining for them is that it demonstrated their ambition and that they really want to do more and achieve more for their students, faculty and staff,” he said.

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“So I think they should just embrace that.”

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Vietnam’s ‘bamboo diplomacy’ triumphs with visits from Biden, Xi and now Putin

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Vietnam’s ‘bamboo diplomacy’ triumphs with visits from Biden, Xi and now Putin

Over the past nine months, Vietnam has hosted Joe Biden, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, balancing geopolitical rivalries with an élan that has eluded other countries.

The string of visits shows how a country adept at attracting manufacturing investment from companies eager to diversify their supply chains is adroitly managing its foreign policy.

By hosting Putin this week for his first visit since 2017, Vietnam, which has a long-standing independent and diversified foreign policy, joins the ranks of North Korea, Iran and China in opening its doors to a leader shunned globally after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Putin’s visit, which follows his trip to North Korea and comes less than a year after Washington and Hanoi upgraded their ties, has irked the US but is unlikely to disrupt relations. “Vietnam has played this game quite well,” said Nguyen Khac Giang, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Vietnam has been “actively neutral” unlike other countries that have been more passive, he said. “Hanoi knows it must actively balance different powers . . . because that’s the way for Vietnam to gain benefits from all three powers. Otherwise it would be drawn into political games without any ability to change the direction of the game.”

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Communist party-ruled Vietnam’s independent foreign policy dates back to the end of the cold war, when Hanoi decided to be a friend to all countries. Long-standing party chief Nguyen Phu Truong, the most senior political figure in Vietnam, calls this “bamboo diplomacy”, citing the plant’s “strong roots, stout trunk and flexible branches”.

Workers in Hanoi manufacturing Russian flags ahead of this week’s visit by Vladimir Putin © Thinh Nguyen/Reuters

Under his leadership, Vietnam has upgraded relations with the US and allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea to “comprehensive strategic partnerships”, the highest level of diplomatic ties afforded by Hanoi.

When Biden visited Hanoi last September, the US president hailed the move to upgrade the partnership as part of the 50-year “arc of progress” between the two former foes.

In recent years Vietnam has become a favoured destination for companies such as Apple as they look to diversify their supply chains away from China. Foreign direct investment in Vietnam hit $36.6bn last year.

Yet Vietnam has managed to achieve this without disrupting its ties with China, its largest trading partner, and Russia, its biggest arms supplier. The two have been strategic partners with Vietnam since 2008 and 2012, respectively.

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Three months after the Biden visit, Xi followed in his footsteps and the two communist neighbours agreed to build a “shared future” to strengthen their ties — despite disagreements and regular stand-offs between their ships in the South China Sea, where Vietnam and Beijing have overlapping claims.

Vietnam has been astute in navigating the relationship with China by striking the right balance “between defiance and deference”, said Susannah Patton, the Lowy Institute’s director of south-east Asia programme.

Vietnam has used its relationships with the US and Russia as a balance against China, she said. “Vietnam has benefited from its omnidirectional foreign policy stance and has made itself relevant to many partners.”

Vladimir Putin being greeted at Noi Bai International Airport
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is greeted at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Thursday © Nhac Nguyen/AFP

Vietnam’s foreign policy direction has withstood recent domestic political upheaval — a result of a long-running corruption crackdown — and is unlikely to change even as geopolitical tensions rise.

Analysts said the Communist party was pragmatic about its foreign policy and understood the importance of having western allies, especially as it looked to cement its place as a crucial manufacturing hub.

At the same time, hosting Putin is a “matter of principle” for Vietnam to show the balance and diversity in its foreign policy, said Le Hong Hiep, senior fellow and co-ordinator of the Vietnam studies programme at Iseas.

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The US has expressed disappointment at the visit but said its relationship with Vietnam would continue to strengthen.

“We reiterate that no country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalise his atrocities. We cannot return to business as usual or turn a blind eye to the clear violations of international law Russia has committed in Ukraine,” a US state department spokesperson told the Financial Times.

Russia, the biggest supplier of military equipment including submarines to Hanoi, has been a close partner of Vietnam since the cold war. The two countries have run joint exploration projects for oil and gas in the South China Sea.

Vietnamese media has reported that Hanoi is seeking closer co-operation with Russia in natural resources, artificial intelligence, life sciences and energy. Putin is expected to meet Nguyen and other senior officials, with talks focusing on trade, economic and technological prospects, along with international and regional issues. It is unclear if any deals will be announced.

This week’s visit may ultimately prove more beneficial for Putin than for Vietnam, said Iseas’ Le, as it shows that doors still open for him. Vietnam might be cautious in announcing any major deals with Russia as it seeks to remain on good terms with the US and its allies.

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“Vietnam will be wise enough to make sure that the visit will not harm its relation with US and western partners,” said Le. “It has been able to maintain good ties with all the major powers, and that plays an important role in helping Vietnam attract investment from different partners.”

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Louisiana will require the 10 Commandments displayed in every public school classroom

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Louisiana will require the 10 Commandments displayed in every public school classroom

Louisiana has become the first state to require that the Ten Commandments be displayed in every public school classroom under a bill signed into law by Republican Gov. Jeff Landry on Wednesday. Above, workers repaint a Ten Commandments billboard off of Interstate 71 near Chenoweth, Ohio, on Nov. 7, 2023.

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BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana has become the first state to require that the Ten Commandments be displayed in every public school classroom, the latest move from a GOP-dominated Legislature pushing a conservative agenda under a new governor.

The legislation that Republican Gov. Jeff Landry signed into law on Wednesday requires a poster-sized display of the Ten Commandments in “large, easily readable font” in all public classrooms, from kindergarten to state-funded universities.

Opponents questioned the law’s constitutionality and vowed to challenge it in court. Proponents said the the measure is not solely religious, but that it has historical significance. In the language of the law, the Ten Commandments are “foundational documents of our state and national government.”

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The posters, which will be paired with a four-paragraph “context statement” describing how the Ten Commandments “were a prominent part of American public education for almost three centuries,” must be in place in classrooms by the start of 2025.

Under the law, state funds will not be used to implement the mandate. The posters would be paid for through donations.

The law also “authorizes” but does not require the display of other items in K-12 public schools, including: The Mayflower Compact, which was signed by religious pilgrims aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and is often referred to as America’s “First Constitution”; the Declaration of Independence; and the Northwest Ordinance, which established a government in the Northwest Territory — in the present day Midwest — and created a pathway for admitting new states to the Union.

Not long after the governor signed the bill into law at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School in Lafayette on Wednesday, civil rights groups and organizations that want to keep religion out of government promised to file a lawsuit challenging it.

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The law prevents students from getting an equal education and will keep children who have different beliefs from feeling safe at school, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation said in a joint statement Wednesday afternoon.

“Even among those who may believe in some version of the Ten Commandments, the particular text that they adhere to can differ by religious denomination or tradition. The government should not be taking sides in this theological debate,” the groups said.

The controversial law, in a state ensconced in the Bible Belt, comes during a new era of conservative leadership in Louisiana under Landry, who replaced two-term Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in January. The GOP holds a supermajority in the Legislature, and Republicans hold every statewide elected position, paving the way for lawmakers to push through a conservative agenda.

Similar bills requiring the Ten Commandments be displayed in classrooms have been proposed in other states including Texas, Oklahoma and Utah. However, with threats of legal battles over the constitutionality of such measures, no state besides Louisiana has succeeded in making the bills law.

Legal battles over the display of the Ten Commandments in classrooms are not new.

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In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a similar Kentucky law was unconstitutional and violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says Congress can “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The high court found that the law had no secular purpose but rather served a plainly religious purpose.

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Officer on Sunak protection detail arrested over alleged bet on timing of UK poll

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Officer on Sunak protection detail arrested over alleged bet on timing of UK poll

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Police investigating bets on the timing of the UK’s general election have arrested an officer from the team guarding Prime Minister Rishi Sunak over the claims.

London’s Metropolitan Police said an officer from its Royalty and Specialist Protection command had been held over “alleged bets”, without identifying whom the officer had been guarding.

A person familiar with the situation confirmed he had been part of Sunak’s protection detail.

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It is the first reported arrest since the Gambling Commission opened a probe into betting on the timing of the surprise election.

The investigation was launched after Craig Williams, a Conservative MP and aide to Sunak, admitted he had placed a wager on a July election shortly before the poll was announced.

The Met said on Wednesday that the Gambling Commission contacted it on Friday saying it was investigating “alleged bets” by a constable from the specialist unit “related to the timing of the general election”.

The force added: “The matter was immediately referred to officers in the Met’s Directorate of Professional Standards, who opened an investigation, and the officer was also removed from operational duties. The officer was subsequently arrested on Monday 17 June on suspicion of misconduct in public office.”

The Met said the arrested officer had been taken into custody and bailed “pending further inquiries”. The matter had also been referred to the force watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, it added.

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The Met did not name the officer, in line with normal practice before anyone is charged.

Sunak aide Williams insisted when admitting laying his bet that the Gambling Commission’s investigation of the matter amounted to “some routine inquiries” with which he would “fully co-operate”. He remains the Conservative general election candidate for Montgomeryshire and Glyndŵr in Wales.

The Guardian reported he had bet £100 on May 19 at odds of 5-1 that the election would be in July, at a time when it was not expected before the autumn. Sunak made his surprise announcement of a July 4 election on May 22.

The police officer is the only person known to have been arrested.

The Gambling Commission said it was investigating the “possibility” of offences concerning the date of the election.

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“This is an ongoing investigation, and the Commission cannot provide any further details at this time,” it said.

Additional reporting by Eri Sugiura

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