Jacob Williams
Friday 6th January, 2017
Trumped-up charges – Part 2

Trumped-up charges – Part 2

In part one I explained how Pembrokeshire County Council’s ex-monitoring officer, Laurence Harding, was hell-bent on pursuing a baseless complaint against me.

Gwyn Evans, the council’s European manager, alleged in December 2013 I had brought the office of councillor into disrepute.

How? Because I posted a link on my website which, he said, gave my readers access to a ‘scandalous’ comment harmful to his professional reputation.

Why? Because, along with other comments, it referred to the well-documented allegations of grant fraud committed against his department – which were subsequently handed to the police, whose ‘investigation’ continues.

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It turned out that Mr. Evans had in fact misread the WT’s website content he found so offensive – but even if he hadn’t, this was not my problem.

In any case, the irregularities were widespread, knowledge of which was certainly not confined to one website or media outlet.

I clearly explained the position to the deaf ears of Mr. Harding – who instead went out of his way to widen the scope of his ‘investigation’ into me and kept it in his hands by treating it under some ‘informal’ grievance procedure.

I suggest you read part one if you haven’t already – because here I explain how Laurence Harding’s bizarre timing – not to mention his outrageous conclusions – were all craftily contrived to silence me and put me off my stride.

I was after all a councillor actively probing the multitudinous grant irregularities Mr. Evans and his colleagues were so desperately and unsuccessfully trying to quell, both as a councillor and as a member of the authority’s statutory audit committee.

The last communication the monitoring officer and I had on Mr. Evans’ ‘complaint’ was the email he sent me on 14th January 2014.

Eight months later, with nothing in-between, entirely out of the blue on 17th September 2014 Harding pounced.

Oftentimes a thickly-filled A4-sized envelope landing on the doormat heralds the generosity of an eager mole.

This was the gift that keeps on giving, but from an altogether different insider – not a whistle-blower but the monitoring officer.

It was a bound bundle of papers titled: REPORT INTO GRIEVANCE COMPLAINT.

Its covering letter opens with the laughable: “As you are aware, I received a grievance against you from a member of staff in January 2014. I apologise for the delay in completing the task due to the intervention of corporate priorities!”

And the intervening period was, surely, nine months of corporate hell.

Harding actually received the complaint the previous year – in December 2013 – not the somewhat better-sounding January 2014 he states.

I’ve heard of pregnant pauses but Larry took the gestational idiom literally.

It included the whole Bryn Parry-Jones unlawful pension opt-out payments scandal and the Wales Audit Office’s high profile legal intervention resulting in the dodgy scheme’s termination.

Keeping Harding busy during these testing times were shameless stunts like his meticulous preparation for the ambush of opposition councillors at the infamous Valentine’s Day massacre council meeting.

For this he stuffed select press clippings into an envelope he left on the back seat of a council limo he’d dispatched to pick up a pre-eminent London QC from the railway station – hired at huge taxpayers’ expense to dispute the auditor.

And this from the statutory officer charged with being the authority’s ethical eyes and ears!

Here’s the covering letter accompanying Mr. Harding’s ‘grievance report’ into Mr. Evans’ allegation:

Despite Mr. Harding’s request, I never had any contact with Mrs. Incledon on this topic, and I have no reason to believe or suspect she had any involvement in or knowledge of this Kremlinesque attempt to nail me.

As you can see, the threat was clear and bold: if I wasn’t agreeable to Mr. Harding’s conclusions, his ‘grievance report’ would be heading straight to a kangaroo court for a show trial.

With so long to mull over his brainchild you might expect Mr. Harding’s report to be a thoroughly conscientious effort.

But it gives every appearance of a rush job, hastily cobbled together before sending – including errors throughout.

Part of the earliest filler guff turns out to be a telling revelation.

Right at the start of this charade, following my refutation of the whole basis for Mr. Evans’ complaint, Mr. Harding went back to Mr. Evans, who completely changed his complaint giving Mr. Harding further scope to skewer me.

The way Mr. Harding put this to me at the time was that Mr. Evans only ‘clarified’ his complaint and not, as was so glaringly obvious, moving the goalposts to suit.

But the unwitting Harding confirms beyond any doubt that he actively encouraged the facilitation of this trumped-up charge, specifically asking Mr. Evans if he wished to widen the net.

You don’t need to be a lawyer to understand the difference between an arbiter inspiring a complainant – by asking a leading question – and passively seeking clarification:

All quotes from this ‘grievance report’ are scanned from the original document, so the mistakes throughout – like in the final line here – are Mr. Harding’s, not mine!

Hardly the sort of impartial conduct you might expect from a monitoring officer – and remember, what they mean by this is that merely a suggestion fraud could have been committed against Mr. Evans’ department – despite a mountain of evidence suggesting the very same – is grounds for not showing ‘respect!’

Mr. Harding further padded his report with various appendices including “Guidance on use of social media by Members issued by the WLGA” [Welsh Local Government Association] as well as “The Human Rights Act 1998 Schedule 1; Article 10,” and references to some councillor in the London borough of Ealing.

All for an ‘informal’ grievance protocol!

So, let’s get stuck into the monitoring officer’s seven-and-a-bit-page edict.

I’ve removed it with technical wizardry, but running diagonally in big letters, Mr. Harding underlaid every sheet of his bungling report with ‘CONFIDENTIAL.’

Analysis of the monitoring officer’s report and its reasoning leaves little doubt why a man with so many letters after his name would be so anxious to keep this humdinger closeted.

For some bizarre reason, as evidenced in part one, Mr. Harding got all hot under the collar about the Western Telegraph’s report of the December 2013 cabinet meeting failing to quote from the flawed whitewashing report drafted by the council officers denying Cllr. Mike Stoddart’s claims of irregularities.

Its relevance is not altogether clear, but, nine months later, he’s still at it:

In that last sentence Mr. Harding employs a rather inventive method of referring to Cllr. Jamie Adams’ shocking and unsubstantiated personal slurs against Cllr. Mike Stoddart and his reputation.

And I’m the one being investigated for not showing enough respect!

From the word go I explained to Mr. Harding that Mr. Evans misread or misinterpreted the Western Telegraph’s comments section which was the basis of his complaint against me, for providing a link to the Google cache of the page where the comments were still visible.

Mr. Harding accepted that Mr. Evans was wrong about the content he found so ‘scandalous’ saying that it “does not relate to the grant schemes” and that he would “ignore it in considering the complaint.”

But three quarters of a year later the forgetful Mr. Harding tried to muddy the waters by bringing in an element of doubt over the WT’s readers’ comments Mr. Evans found so egregious.

By the time of writing his report, Mr. Harding says that it is now only “probably” the case that my refutation was correct:

As for the rest of that paragraph, I don’t make innuendos of incompetence or fraud in the council’s grant cash administration. Not because I don’t want to but because nobody ever needed to – it’s exactly what the evidence has suggested since Cllr. Stoddart started uncovering irregularities on his own website in 2013.

Next, Mr. Harding addresses Mr. Evans’ bid to get the Western Telegraph to expunge the ‘scandalous’ commentary:

In fact they were not all removed, like Mr. Harding says. The comments section was temporarily taken down, presumably when the WT were considering Mr. Evans’ complaint, but reinstated soon after, when it became apparent only three comments got the chop, none of which related in any way to Mr. Evans like he believed. (These are the comments I showed in red in my email to the monitoring officer, in part one.)

Returning to his pet project in the next paragraph, Mr. Harding is back on the attack about a failure to recount the officer-drafted flawed cabinet report.

He says I only provided “a view, but not details” of the grant irregularities.

During his nine-month prevarication Mr. Harding managed to forget the name of my website article which sparked Mr. Evans’ complaint.

Suddenly my post titled “Smear tactics” became “Smear Campaign.”

Such attention to detail!

A year earlier, when the monitoring officer concluded in a hopelessly flawed whitewashing report to the audit committee that everything in the authority’s grant scheme administration was kosher, he did so despite the mounting evidence collated by Cllr. Stoddart.

He and other officers backed the wrong horse. They thought they could get away with discrediting Cllr. Stoddart and saying his allegations were misguided.

But if that was a gamble that backfired, then this is something of a different league.

This ‘grievance report’ – which reads as if the monitoring officer still defends the grants scheme’s probity with the same alacrity – was authored by Mr. Harding in the full knowledge that the council had already handed over a bundle of evidence supporting fraud allegations to the police.

You might well wonder why Mr. Harding would put himself in this position. Or, you may conclude as I have done, that trying to make sense of it totally misses the point.

In the following paragraph Mr. Harding refers to a comment made by my regular contributor Goldingsboy “at 10.18 on the 7 December” relating to the fraud squad.

But no such comment exists.

The comment in question was actually submitted by a commenter called Barrie Woolmer – who, like David Edwards and Malcolm Calver commenting on the same post, is also a former county councillor.

Mr. Woolmer’s comment is, in its entirety: “Who will be the first to contact the fraud squad?”

Mr. Woolmer – and Gwyn Evans – now knows that the answer to this question is: Pembrokeshire County Council – after being confronted with the damning evidence Cllr. Mike Stoddart and I uncovered in February 2014.

Unlike the way the second paragraph above is worded, I had no prior knowledge, when providing the link on my website, about the comments on the WT website before the comments section was taken down.

I merely looked at Google’s cache of the page, where I could see their snapshot at 5.22 the prior morning contained 26 comments, to which I provided a link. Nothing more, nothing less.

Getting to his ‘conclusions,’ now, Mr. Harding says:

He got one thing right – I absolutely do edit and vet everything that appears on my website. I also have a sound understanding of libel and training in media law.

That’s why I don’t publish libellous content on my blog or approve it in readers’ comments – numbering over 5,000 to date.

Censorious, thin-skinned public servants would do well to understand that libel is an entirely different concept to content or criticisms a subject dislikes, but which is supported by evidence as fact or honest comment on matters of public interest.

What is it with links? First Mr. Evans complains after I posted a link, now Mr. Harding criticises me for not posting a link!

You’ll note that, back in Agony Aunt mode, Mr. Harding there makes his third reference to my non-inclusion of the council officers’ flawed cabinet report – following it straight up with a fourth:

Here, Mr. Harding again gives the impression of living in a vacuum with regards to the widespread public knowledge at that time of the grant irregularities.

Of the reader-comments on the Western Telegraph’s website, some of which were removed following Mr. Evans’ request to the editor, Mr. Harding says:

And the monitoring officer’s view that it is defamatory to suggest that a forensic accountant be brought in to investigate the expenditure of public cash – especially given Cllr. Stoddart’s clear evidence by that time – is interesting to say the least.

Especially since he authored this ‘grievance report’ in full knowledge that the fraud squad had already been called in by the council.

In reference to the first line of his following paragraph, I’ve already explained how the reference to the anonymous ‘Goldingsboy’ was in fact made by former councillor Barrie Woolmer – under his full name.

Many more commentators on the Western Telegraph website may have used pseudonyms, but that website is not under my control:

I still don’t understand the sixth and seventh line down, or what “responsibility and facts would have been apparent to [me.]”

To give his report a gloss coating of some legal authority, Mr. Harding moves on to the Human Rights Act:

I take this as a lily-livered suggestion that Mr. Harding believes I have disrespected Gwyn Evans’ private and family life but that he’s unprepared to say so or evidence it.

He continues to blast the High Court case:

Mr. Harding’s single sentence reference to the Heesom case at the end – suggesting I carried out ‘personal abuse’ – really doesn’t do that particular disciplinary case justice – but I’ve done the work he didn’t want to.

There, ex-Cllr. Patrick Heesom of Flintshire County Council was found guilty of fourteen breaches of the members’ code of conduct in an extremely complex and lengthy case with a catalogue of allegations dating back several years.

Heesom conducted a campaign of harassment and bullying against council officers, including intimidation, threats, attempts to coerce officials, involving himself in council officers’ workloads and menacing behaviour.

He was a cabinet member and, as specific examples he “sought to bring undue pressure” on officers to “allocate properties in his ward to specific individuals outside the Council’s agreed policy” and generally threw his weight around, saying a council director was “s**t at her job” and that “her days are numbered.”

The very thought!

Complainants to the ombudsman in the Heesom case consisted of every single member of Flintshire council’s “Corporate Management Team,” and the ensuing disciplinary inquiry considered 7,000 pages of evidence, heard testimony from 48 witnesses – over 58 days of hearings – and the tribunal’s findings of fact alone culminated in a 400-page report.

It is not altogether clear if Mr. Harding is suggesting he believes Gwyn Evans had a similarly strong case against me.

Maybe we’ll never know!

Going back to the Malcolm Calver disciplinary case, Mr. Harding was the monitoring officer advising PCC’s standards committee, so he knows full well the legal ramifications.

The committee’s guilty verdict – upheld by the Adjudication Panel for Wales – was entirely overturned by the High Court, when the landmark legal ruling in Calver’s successful appeal redefined the boundaries for political expression and free speech.

Following the ruling, seminars were delivered to councillors at County Hall where Mr. Harding made no attempt to hide his disapproval of the High Court’s decision.

Mr. Harding acknowledges that, as far as political expression goes, the Calver ruling means politicians and senior civil servants need “thicker skins,” but categorically discounts Mr. Evans from this latter bracket for being a lowly “fourth tier operational manager.”

Mr. Evans cannot have it both ways, and neither can Mr. Harding.

Either Mr. Evans is, as he claims to be: a manager so intrinsically renowned “across Pembrokeshire and beyond” for his “good management of European Funds in Pembrokeshire” – holding such authority that raising the mere prospect fraud could have been committed against his department amounts to a serious personal slur against him – or he is not.

But the Calver case struck a victory for freedom of expression – it was a winning case, and that just wouldn’t do!

So in the next paragraph, Mr. Harding tries to kill two birds with one stone – bolster his case and pad-out his ‘informal’ (!) ‘grievance report’ – with a blogging councillor’s ‘free speech’ case that lost at the High Court.

To do so he goes to the capital city. Not Cardiff, but the London borough of Ealing:

You might be wondering why Mr Harding fails to tell readers of his ‘grievance report’ any specifics of this losing legal case – of a blogging councillor – he thought supported his conclusions on the allegation I failed to show Mr. Evans disrespect by posting a link on my blog.

I know I did!

So I decided to look into this comparison he invites, where it became immediately obvious why he skimmed over it.

This was because the Ealing councillor tried and failed to overturn a rebuke for making what were widely perceived to be ethnic slurs about an area and characteristics of residents living within part of the borough.

And, on this comparison, Mr. Harding suggests that I am “undermining confidence in local government” – from a world-class practitioner.

As for Mr. Harding’s interpretation that my providing a link to a page, without comment, is “taken as being introduced” to my blog, he is simply wrong.

Had I commented alongside the link saying something like: “check out these scandalous allegations against the council’s European manager,” or even had I done a ‘Sally Bercow,’ the situation may have been different.

Here, Mr. Harding asserts as fact that the material Mr. Evans complained of was defamatory. It was not.

That Mr. Evans received the co-operation of the Western Telegraph’s editor following his request, says little.

It certainly doesn’t mean the WT “implicitly agreed that the comments were at least offensive and probably defamatory.”

That’s making conclusions that the evidence doesn’t warrant – and the WT editor could have done exactly what Mr. Evans expected me to do – roll over at his say-so and accede to his misguided demands to censor content he disliked.

Mr. Harding, here, repeats his untruthful implication that I knew 26 comments were on the WT’s site when the comments facility was taken down.

And in the next paragraph, our qualified lawyer re-enters thought police mode:

Now you might think drink-driving a car with four bald tyres in icy conditions is reckless behaviour.

Maybe your idea of recklessness starts lower down the scale, like playing conkers without eye goggles.

Not Laurence Harding!

Commenting on my own website’s comments section with a link was ‘reckless!’

Reckless, because of my “failure to ascertain” why the WT removed the comments Gwyn Evans disliked, and that I would – not should – but “would have been aware that it was unusual for the WT to take such action on a story that was attracting contributors!”

Aside from Mr. Harding’s assertion as fact – not for the first time – that he knows the inner workings of my mind, we have his own judgement that I would find the WT’s removal of comments unusual.

I don’t – it’s actually quite common, because I believe the WT’s comments system works reactively. You post a comment, it appears. This is a much greater risk than gatekeeper systems, like mine, where comments have to be approved.

But a bit of further analysis here goes a long way.

Earlier on I reproduced what Mr. Harding purported to be the email the WT editor sent to Mr. Evans, following his complaint to them.

The forensically-minded among you will have realised that the WT editor tells Mr. Evans she has: “suspended a number of comments from our site, including the particular comment you highlighted.”

We can take “the particular comment” to mean the one which, in his complaint about me, he said: “in particular, is scandalous.”

That’s the comment he had totally misread or misunderstood.

So, even within Mr. Harding’s ‘evidence’ against me, is contained a clear suggestion that it is not unusual for the Western Telegraph to delete reader comments, who also deleted above and beyond what Mr. Evans highlighted.

Mr. Harding continues:

This translates roughly as: something’s offensive if Mr. Evans says so. Also, another contradiction, because here Mr. Harding accepts that the comments did not appear on my blog, whereas earlier he concluded that they were “taken as being introduced” to my blog by my “explicit introduction.”

The ‘grievance report’ ends:

There we are then!

So, after eight months of silence, why did Mr. Harding write and send this to me on 17th September 2014?

Why not August or October?

And why mid-September? Why not early or late September?

For everything a reason.

You may remember earlier I said I am one of only two opposition members on PCC’s seven-member audit committee, and its most active councillor probing this important topic.

I was – and remain – of the view that the council, via fair and evidence-based HR disciplinary processes, must hold any and all officers to account for what I see as gross incompetence or, possibly worse.

The officers that are still working for the council, that is.

So the date Mr. Harding chose to send me his ‘grievance report’ – Wednesday, September 17th was very symbolic.

It was days before the audit committee was about to reconvene its formal investigation into the irregularities, at a meeting on Monday, 22nd September.

This was the recommencement of the internal investigation which, rather than looking into the allegations of fraud like the police, was probing the failures and pitfalls of the council’s officers in administrating the grant scheme and public cash.

I had, on this committee, previously been robust in my scrutiny of officers, and robust in my reporting of proceedings.

At this meeting I would be face-to-face with an array of officers, including Mr. Evans who was still in defence and vouched for the accuracy of his erroneous FAQ document I recalled in part one.

So did Mr. Harding’s carefully-timed bully-boy tactics work?

Well, this particular meeting of the audit committee will get an airing in part four.

Until then, readers wondering if this stunt had any effect on my confidence might wish to read the Pembrokeshire Herald’s online account.

As for Larry’s ‘grievance report,’ you may also be wondering: was I “amenable to accept” his conclusions?

Did I apologise to Gwyn Evans?

Or was I summoned to the secret hastily-convened show trial?

Tune in next week!

STILL TO COME IN PART 3…

BP-J ENTERS THE FRAY

— WILL BRYN CLEANSE ME FROM SIN?


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14 Comments...

  • Goldingsboy

    Do you think it possible, Jacob, that Mr Harding read a contribution of mine, which you decided in your wisdom not to publish? How so, you may ask? It is no big secret, that senior council officials enjoy restricted access to the product of GCHQ that is relevant to the operations of that council.

  • John Devonald

    Well done Jacob and Mike, great work! Please run part 3 next week!

    Roll on the May elections, say bye bye to Adams and other farmers.

  • Flashbang

    In my view Harding is a disgrace to the legal profession and local government. Having said that, as a monitoring officer I wonder if he would be held up as a shining example.

    If PCC and its officers are so thin skinned, why haven’t the multiple online comments over the years specifically saying PCC is corrupt been deleted?

    For example, right now on the Western Telegraph article about the planned council tax rise of 5% every year until 2021, ‘Red Toyota’ replying to ‘KeanJo’ at 7:53pm on Friday 6 Jan 2017 says:

    “Is this why we are paying huge salaries to muppets to come up with an idea like this. What a simple idea, why 5%? Go the whole hog and make it 100% Only corrupt P.C.C.”

  • Goldingsboy – with conspiracy theories like that you must have learnt from the very best!

    However I didn’t withhold any comments either at the time or since.

    Mr. Harding gives the date and time of the comment he refers to, he just got the author’s name wrong. As well as so much more, of course.

    Flashbang, I totally agree with the bit of your comment I edited out for obvious reasons. Happy new year to you.

  • Oliver Cromwell

    In the school of hard knocks in which I was raised there was a simple piece of careers advice: Those who can do, those who can’t join the local council.

    Many years of having to deal with council officers at every level has only reinforced that view. Mr Harding is a fine example.

    On the question of the Pembroke Dock grants the evidence suggests a fraud has been committed. It must be brought to account.

    I strongly believe referral to the elected Police and Crime Commissioner is the best next step. After all the reputation of Dyfed-Powys Police is on the line, and not looking good!

  • Goldingsboy

    As you must know, Jacob, local authorities have extraordinary powers granted to them under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

    What is really worrying, and germane to my “theory” is that a report in The Telegraph, 12/3/15, claimed that “town halls were granted permission to access [2,110 domestic] private communications data more times than GCHQ and MI6 last year, according to official figures”.

    Furthermore, The Telegraph went on to record that Eric Pickles, the then Secretary of State for Local Government, accused a number of council officials of over-zealously “acting out their James Bond fantasies”.

    Conspiracy theory possibly, but how else do you account for a lawyer, I repeat, a lawyer, getting a contributor’s attribution so spectacularly wrong?

  • Keanjo

    It’s good to know the upper echelons in County Hall are reading what their ‘customers’ think of their performance although it seems to have little effect.

    Thank you for these accounts of your tussles with Harding – like many others I look forward Part 3.

    I can’t understand Harding’s inference that you are responsible for comments made to the WT. The comments are made following articles in the newspaper and indicate the independent views of members of the public.

    Many people are looking forward to the May elections when we will be given the opportunity to rid ourselves of certain members but we have to ask ourselves whether elected members are the only problem in County Hall ?

  • Timetraveller

    Oliver Cromwell – Do Dyfed Powys Police have a reputation? If so for what?

    Apparently Essex police are quite good at taking a long time, (see here) the Pembroke Dock grants application could be Dyfed-Powys’s blockbusting entry to skew their figures!

  • Kendl

    Keanjo, we may get the chance to get rid of some members but how many will be returned ‘unopposed’?

  • Flashbang

    What is needed before the elections is to make sure the people know their current elected member is nothing but a stooge for the IPPG who has no interest in anything but how much money he/she can grab.

    Make sure the news stories from the past get re-circulated and make sure that the member’s name is well and truly prominent. It’s not dirty tricks, its fact.

  • Oliver Cromwell

    Timetraveller, you are undoubtedly right! My thought was more the Commissioner having an eye to his lucrative future. Hope springs..?

  • Legal Eagle

    In a previous incarnation I served as an officer in the armed forces. For a period of over two years I was responsible, among many other duties, for convening Summaries of Evidence and Boards of Inquiry.

    I did not undertake them, but rather “volunteered” other officers for this duty. However, I was responsible for briefing those officers of their duty regarding procedures and, in particular, the rules of evidence.

    Once completed I vetted the SoE/BoI before forwarding it to my HQ. If I thought that there were weaknesses or inaccuracies I referred the matter back to the officer concerned for remedial action.

    As these documents could form the basis for a Court Martial, accuracy and compliance with rules of evidence was most important.

    I have no legal qualification, just a logical mind and the ability to follow those rules of evidence.

    I am appalled that a legally qualified person could release such a finding so full of inaccuracies and unsubstantiated innuendo. It is so farcical you could write a comedy script for a TV series!

  • Timetraveller

    Oliver, we have a new chief constable and the current commissioner has only just got settled in, so hope can spring eternal.

    I think the commissioners we have had to date have been determined to make their mark. However policing is a complex business with its own deep culture that is difficult to change.

  • Brian

    Very good Jacob, but you may be compromising achievement of the goal I suspect you desire – regime change. The electorate are going to have to decide whether they want to forfeit another ten years of comedy gold!

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