Britain's political spending watchdog said Wednesday it was scaling up an investigation into Prime Minister Boris Johnson's finances, saying there were "reasonable grounds" to suspect an offense had been committed over the pricey refurbishment of the prime minister's Downing Street residence.
The Electoral Commission has been looking into whether any funds used to pay for renovating the apartment should have been declared under the law on political donations; amid claims Johnson received a loan from his Conservative Party for the work.
The commission said it was "now satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offense or offenses may have occurred," and a formal investigation would take place.
"The investigation will determine whether any transactions relating to the works at 11 Downing Street fall within the regime regulated by the Commission and whether such funding was reported as required," the commission said in a statement.
The Electoral Commission has the power to impose fines for breaches of spending rules, and can refer cases to the police.
Last week, Johnson's former top aide, Dominic Cummings, claimed that the prime minister planned to get Conservative Party donors to pay for the refurbishment of the taxpayer-funded apartment where Johnson lives in the apartment with fiancée Carrie Symonds and their baby son, Wilfred.
Cummings, who left his job late last year, said he had told Johnson the plan was "unethical, foolish, and possibly illegal."
Johnson said Wednesday in the House of Commons, "I have paid for Downing Street refurbishment personally"
But he did not say when asked whether he had been lent the money for the work, reported to have cost around 60,000 pounds ($83,000).
Government ministers are required to declare donations they receive. Johnson insisted he had "conformed in full" with the code of conduct.
He said that "any further declaration I have to make, if any, I will be advised upon by Lord Geidt," a former private secretary to Queen Elizabeth II who is the prime minister's newly appointed adviser on ministerial standards.
The refurbishment allegations are part of a slew of claims of cronyism and ethical breaches against Johnson and his Conservative government that have been piling up ahead of local and regional elections next week.
Johnson has also denied a press report which quoted him as allegedly saying he would rather see "bodies pile high in their thousands" than impose a third national lockdown on the country. He called the claim "total, total rubbish"
The "cash for curtains" renovation story has struck a particular chord because it touches on money, snobbery and other sensitive issues in class-conscious Britain. Newspapers have run long reports on the Downing Street décor, alleging that it included gold wallpaper and a sofa that sells for 15,000 pounds (about $20,800).
Opponents have seized on allegations that Symonds and Johnson labelled the furniture chosen by the previous Prime Minister, Theresa May, and her husband a "John Lewis nightmare." John Lewis is a department store widely regarded as a purveyor of mid-range quality furnishings.
Words by JILL LAWLESS and PAN PYLAS Associated Press