Jacob Williams

Trumped-up charges – Part 4

Friday 3rd February, 2017
Trumped-up charges – Part 4

In part one I explained how Pembrokeshire County Council’s European manager, Gwyn Evans, lodged a baseless complaint against me.

In part two, how PCC’s erstwhile monitoring officer Laurence Harding relentlessly pursued this trumped-up charge in-house under tinpot informal protocols, despite Mr. Evans’ unequivocal assertion that my conduct amounted to a ‘clear breach’ of the councillors’ code of conduct.

Part three saw how disgraced former chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones tried to refer Harding’s very timely but hopelessly bungled ‘grievance report’ for a show-trial at a kangaroo court.

This concluding part, in chapters, looks in more detail at some of the other aspects of the council’s grants scheme debacle. The people involved, subsequently unfolding events, interconnected issues and conduct you really will conclude is totally unacceptable.

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Laurence Harding sat silently on Gwyn Evans’ groundless complaint about me for nine months, before writing to me with a slapdash report ‘upholding’ the ‘grievance.’

This just happened to come a week before I was due to sit, as a member of PCC’s audit committee, at the re-convention of its formal investigation into PCC’s shambolic mishandling of publicly-funded historic property restoration grant schemes.

In his role as PCC’s European manager, Mr. Evans was vigorously defending the project despite credible evidence of alleged fraud highlighted by campaigning councillor/blogger, Mike Stoddart, on his OldGrumpy.co.uk blog.

If the purpose of Laurence Harding’s trumped-up charge and subsequent ‘grievance report’ was to put me off balance for the audit committee’s recommencement of its investigation into the council’s desperate mismanagement of grant cash, and retreat into a soft approach to scrutiny of those accountable, it didn’t work.

Dr. Steven Jones, Pembrokeshire council’s director of development

On a previous meeting of the audit committee’s special investigation – when County Hall’s top brass believed they would get away with denying and whitewashing Cllr. Stoddart’s allegations of impropriety – one of the most senior officers was wheeled in to reassure the probe that everything was above board.

This was on 20th January 2014, when PCC’s audit committee gave Pembrokeshire County Council’s director of development, Dr. Steven Jones a grilling – or should that be toasting?

Here, Dr. Jones infamously told members that, while he was confident all was hunky dory, he couldn’t “give a personal guarantee” to members “that every single penny of money that is spent is accounted for,” much like the council’s catering service couldn’t account for “the number of bread rolls that get delivered on a day-to-day basis.”

I recorded this memorable reassurance in my blogpost: “The penny and the bun.”

Careful to point out that he was: “not hands-on involved in the management of either the THI scheme or the Commercial Property Grant Scheme,” Dr. Jones boasted during his time at the authority his team of “competent and highly motivated staff” had huge success in accessing “something in the region of £50m of external funding.”

Gwyn Evans, Pembrokeshire council’s European manager

It was at this meeting that the council’s European manager, Gwyn Evans, talked councillors through a slideshow presentation setting out the two historic property restoration grant programmes operating in Pembroke Dock and their respective audit regimes.

The committee was told that the two schemes – the Commercial Property Grant Scheme (CPGS) and the Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI) – had undergone audits by several organisations known by an alphabet soup of acronyms, not one of which had found any issues whatsoever.

At that stage the establishment were in denial overdrive. It was seriously envisaged that through careful stage-management the matter could be self-contained with a formal flavour courtesy of the audit committee’s ‘investigation.’

The attitude that allegations of impropriety were preposterous, no doubt, led Mr. Evans to make his complaint about me – in which he was aghast that even a suggestion could be made it was possible fraud could have been committed against his department.

Three weeks later Old Grumpy and JW made a discovery that changed everything.

THE GAME-CHANGER

On 12th February 2014, Cllr. Mike Stoddart and I jointly discovered the key evidence of ‘irregularities’ (putting it mildly) which gave senior County Hall officials no option but to call in the police.

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This was the smoking gun Private Eye magazine said shows “unaccountably favourable treatment had been given” to a favoured building contractor – immediately rendering the County Hall cover-up redundant.

Mike explained the evidence we unearthed, and its significance, in a post on his blog at the time – and now nearly three years after the council handed over a thick dossier to the rozzers, not a single arrest or criminal charge has been made.

We’d found copies of documents demonstrating that what was supposed to be a fair tendering process for the appointment of a building contractor for the grant-funded work, actually gave a significant inbuilt head-start to who would go on to become the appointed tenderer.

That building contractor was Pembrokeshire-based G&G Builders, the unbelievably fortunate firm which won every single tender it submitted for CPGS grant-funded restoration work at all six Pembroke Dock properties connected to England-based Irishman, Cathal McCosker.

Described as ‘Bedsit Baron’ and slum landlord, McCosker had five properties in the town collectively allocated over £400,000 in CPGS public funding – an average of a cushy £82,000 per property – whilst fourteen other restoration projects unconnected to McCosker attracted grant cash of £371,000, averaging out at a mere £28,500.

“Cllr Williams, in particular, was insistent that they contact the Police immediately.”
— Gwyn Evans
Cllr. Stoddart and I made the discovery whilst jointly inspecting files at County Hall, whereupon we immediately went upstairs to Dr. Steven Jones – the council director under whose directorate the grants scheme is administered.

Dr. Jones was in his office, alone, but, as I told the audit committee several months later, he showed a concerning lack of interest.

So we left his office and went down the corridor to see the then director of finance, Mark Lewis, who called in his deputy Jonathan Haswell to join us.

Cllr. Stoddart and I explained the evidence to Mr. Lewis, who has since retired, and Mr. Haswell, who recently succeeded to the authority’s top finance position. Both recognised there was no alternative but a police referral.

Gwyn Evans, who wasn’t present, later wrote about this showdown in an internal report, saying: “Cllr Williams, in particular, was insistent that they contact the Police immediately.”

The remarkable turnaround by senior council players – from relentlessly whitewashing Cllr. Stoddart’s grant fraud allegations and personally discrediting him, to now calling in the boys in blue – was a huge story.

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The Pembrokeshire Herald, with its gritty coverage of the PCC grants scandal, prominently reported the historic County Hall cave-in.

The Herald claimed this significant development must have been ‘difficult’ for Mr. Evans because only weeks beforehand, sitting before the audit committee’s formal investigation into the grant irregularities, he’d said there weren’t any problems to be found.

Taking great exception to this news report, Mr. Evans dusted off his typewriter. This time the recipient of his career-protecting dispatch was the Pembrokeshire Herald’s owner-editor, Tom Sinclair.

Click for the full story

Evans told Sinclair: “I greatly resent your inaccurate report that I misled the Council’s Audit Committee” claiming he “did not tell” the committee there were no problems to be found. He was also very unhappy they’d used his photograph.

The Herald, who stood by their story, aren’t in the business of being brow-beaten either – and in a mark of defiance, like I did in part one of this series, they published Mr. Evans’ miffed missive in their weekly copy, and online.

In his letter, Mr. Evans makes an uncannily similar accusation to one he made to Laurence Harding months earlier when complaining about me.

This is his illogical claim that any reference to irregularities in the grant schemes administered by his PCC department amounts to allegations that he is personally guilty of crime. Or as he put it to Sinclair: “the scurrilous insinuation that I have been involved in fraudulent activity.”

The Herald had never made any accusation of the sort.

Mr. Evans must have pecked away at his keyboard emboldened by the fact that, after sending a similar letter to the Western Telegraph’s editor some months beforehand, she had removed two reader comments from the WT’s website that he had misread as claims he’d committed or assisted fraud.

Click for full story

But the Herald wasn’t for turning.

Despite Mr. Evans’ claim that he had never told the audit committee that there were no problems to be found, the Herald showed that they were his exact words.

The Herald had an ace up their sleeve in the form of their reporter’s audio recording of the meeting. In the following week’s newspaper the transcript was printed alongside Mr. Evans’ letter of denial – in an article titled “Council officer’s rant by post.”

But those back-to-back issues cannot be the only Pembrokeshire Heralds Mr. Evans wished had never gone to print.

In April 2014 Pembrokeshire County Council came under investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Little was known publicly about who was involved or the specifics of their formal probe, but it related to tampering with grant documentation that had been requested a year earlier under freedom of information legislation.

The council was vigorously resistant to the Herald’s queries about who did what, why, how and when. But the media blackout didn’t last long – the Pembrokeshire Herald soon found out exactly whose actions sparked the ICO’s probe, and what went on.

‘HERALD REVEALS WHODUNNIT’

Click for full story

With its front page headline ‘MINUTES MEDDLER UNMASKED,’ the Herald exclusively revealed that GWYN EVANS had altered the minutes of several grant panel meetings immediately after a member of the public had requested copies of the same documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

The member of the public was, actually, none other than fellow councillor/blogger, Mike Stoddart.

It is a sad reflection that, so cagey had Mr. Evans’ superiors been – and so defiant in denying Cllr. Stoddart the grant scheme documentation he wanted to further his probe into irregularities – he had resorted to submitting FoI requests.

Cllr. Stoddart asked for copies of the minutes of all grant panel meetings which took place to recommend and, ostensibly scrutinise, the CPGS grant applications by now under his suspicion.

This information was held on council computers. In good time, Cllr. Stoddart was duly provided with what he asked for – but was surprised a year later when notified by PCC that a very serious howler had been made handling his request, warranting a self-referral to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

It transpired that, as soon as Cllr. Stoddart had sent in his FoI request, Gwyn Evans – who made baseless claims of my own ethics – opened up the computer files containing the grant panel’s minutes Cllr. Stoddart wanted copies of, and started editing them!

What Cllr. Stoddart received was in fact not what had been held on the council’s records, and chiefly, not what had been authored and approved as the contemporaneous account of the grant panel’s meetings.

Section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 states that any person is guilty of a criminal offence “if he alters, defaces, blocks, erases, destroys or conceals any record held by the public authority, with the intention of preventing the disclosure by that authority of all, or any part, of the information to the communication of which the applicant would have been entitled.”

Mr. Evans made a raft of changes including adding in extra detail and tidying up sentences. But some introduced entirely new elements not included in the untampered minutes.

One grant-aided building ‘restoration’ which had come under particular focus by Cllr. Stoddart was 29 Dimond Street, the building occupied by Paul Sartori charity shop.

Mr. Evans added in the following completely new sentence to the minutes relating to this property: “The Panel agreed that the existing photos showed the building to be in a poor state of repair and in clear need of renovation,” where the original minutes had actually only recorded panel members’ desire to see photographs of wider detail.

It is unknown how it was discovered that the minutes had been fiddled because on face value the changes were imperceptible. This was because Mr. Evans concealed that his amendments were added in after the fact by making his changes to the body of the text, rather than as annotations.

Mr. Evans’ tinkering made it look like the grant-awarding panel’s deliberations were more thorough than the untampered minutes made out. As the Herald reported:

“…a further alteration to the 29 Dimond Street panel meeting minutes was cunningly crafted to imply panel members showed an element of foresight, by the addition of the text: “…whilst jobs created/accommodated and enterprises accommodated outputs are not expected in the short term (as the Sartori Charity Shop is expected to remain here in the immediate future), there is a possibility that a new enterprise may move into the premises before the end of the Programme”.”

The Pembrokeshire Herald’s revelation that Gwyn Evans had meddled with the minutes had unbelievably wide-ranging consequences, and would play a key part in Bryn Parry-Jones’ downfall.

Control-freak Bryn knew this journalistic scoop was reporting information only known by a very limited number of County Hall insiders, all senior figures.

Bryn was paranoid – because as well as knowing Mr. Evans’ identity, the Herald had an even bigger scoop: for fiddling the minutes, Mr. Evans underwent an internal disciplinary process “resulting in just a WRITTEN WARNING,” as they put it, which the Western Mail helpfully explains is “one of the lowest sanctions possible.”

The proverbial hit the fan. This was information only known by Bryn Parry-Jones’ most-trusted. BP-J launched a molehunt, commanding the dozen or so leak suspects up to his office for an early morning interrogation.

This included senior officers, senior councillors, and the then chairman of the authority’s audit committee, independent lay-member Mr. John Evans MBE – who I’ll henceforth refer to as Mr. Evans MBE, to distinguish from Gwyn Evans.

Mr. Evans MBE, who had been appointed to the role following a corporate history in multinational electronics, was very diligent in his role probing the grant scheme irregularities – and somehow managed to discover the minutes had been meddled.

Mr. Evans MBE was one of the very few who, from the start was prepared to accept fraud may have been committed, and who always treated probity allegations with the gravity they deserved.

He also came to realise that a cover-up was going on, and to his credit resisted every attempt – and many were made – to thwart his forensic approach.

For instance, council officers tried and failed to use the ongoing police inquiries as an excuse to halt his committee’s investigation. Mr. Evans MBE was adamant that scrutiny of PCC’s internal grants failings could and should continue alongside the police’s separate criminal remit, without any problems.

It was at Bryn’s early morning molehunt meeting that Mr. Parry-Jones went a step too far.

In what Mr. Evans MBE described as a ‘hostile’ 8.15am meeting he was ‘required’ to attend, Mr. Parry-Jones threatened to bring in private investigators to discover the Herald’s ‘minutes meddler’ source, unless the guilty party present owned up there and then.

Mr. Evans MBE said he was “shocked at the tone, attitude and hostility” of BP-J, whose “threat” caused him “great anguish and concern,” and that the confrontation “ended in a stunned silence.”

The encounter was yet another example, he said, of him being disrespected and steamrollered by senior officers who didn’t buy into his concept of scrutiny or his quest to fully identify the council’s internal shortcomings, concluding that “the vision” he held and “the appetite for change held by the authority” were “no longer aligned.”

“Isolated” and “unable to garner support from any quarter,” Mr. Evans resigned and subsequently wrote a detailed account of his experience leading up to his resignation in a letter to council leader, Cllr. Jamie Adams.

I obtained a copy of this letter and explosively published it on my website.

Mr. Evans MBE concluded that “insufficient management supervision and control was the root cause of the potential wrongdoing” in the publiclty-funded grant schemes, and said the numerous audits they endured had “missed some serious flaws in the Grant delivery process.”

He told Cllr. Adams that he in fact discovered Gwyn Evans’ minutes meddling handiwork, changes he believed Mr. Evans made in reaction to increasing temperatures – or as he put it: the growing “press speculation” over “suspicion of wrongdoing.”

Despite audit committee members voting to be presented with a disciplinary report into the then unknown minutes meddler, the audit committee chairman said he was “extremely disappointed” following the meeting that officers overruled the democratic decision – deciding it wouldn’t happen.

Such conduct of council officers left Mr. Evans MBE “unable to serve in an independent, objective manner,” saying his treatment amounted to “constructive dismissal” leaving “no option” but to resign.

The resignation letter created holy hell, hitting the national headlines.

The revelation that, after a near twenty-year run of untouchable dominance BP-J was throwing his weight around in paranoiac scenes – threatening private detectives whilst waving “aloft a copy of the Pembrokeshire Herald” – was extraordinary.

It only served to heighten Bryn Parry-Jones’ previously unheard-of vulnerability, which was already sky-high following his pivotal involvement in the authority’s unlawful pension contributions debacle.

BYE BYE BRYN

Bryn Parry-Jones, Pembrokeshire council’s disgraced chief executive

The image of Jamie Adams, Bryn Parry-Jones and Laurence Harding huddled around Harding’s grievance report in Bryn’s king-sized office is quite something. Especially so since Bryn’s involvement in this charade – chiefly his attempt to refer this bunkum report to the kangaroo court – can’t have been without an element of personal animus.

My publication of the audit committee chairman’s resignation letter, laying bare the megalomaniacal Oxford graduate’s unique way of winning friends and influencing people, was one thing.

But Bryn was weighed down with a much heavier burden that only came to pass because of my key council proposal – a last ditch amendment – that caught the ruling independent party’s councillors off guard.

At around the same time Harding sent me his ‘grievance report,’ BP-J was being hauled before a formal disciplinary committee on misconduct charges stemming from his outrageous expletive-laden tirade towards a pair of councillors he’d marched up to his office.

This behaviour was surely an ethics code breach if ever there was one.

Bryn’s foul-mouthed tirade was directed towards Cllrs. Peter Morgan and Mark Edwards because these elected members had the audacity to vote in support of my successful council amendment inviting Mr. Parry-Jones – and the other anonymous recipient of unlawful cash sums under the authority’s notorious pension debacle – to voluntarily repay their gains.

Of course, Bryn never repaid the money – but was bitterly disappointed in these councillors for daring to ask him to, and let them know it in an expletive-laden dressing-down.

My publication of John Evans’ fiery resignation letter, and the response it received, gave Cllrs. Morgan and Edwards the confidence to spill the beans to the Pembrokeshire Herald – with another scoop – on Mr. Parry-Jones’ potty-mouthed tongue-lashing.

The very same day the Herald ran its exclusive on Bryn’s blow-up, came the unprecedented County Hall announcement that Mr. Parry-Jones had been sent away on gardening leave – or ‘a period of absence with immediate effect’ – from which he would never return.

KNOWLEDGE IS KEY

Cllr. Mike Stoddart at the December 2013 full council meeting

As mentioned earlier, Cllr. Mike Stoddart submitted a number of FoI requests to access information in his grant scheme probe, which routinely came back to him with blobs of black marker pen blotting-out everything meaningful on the spurious grounds of ‘commercial sensitivity.’

But Cllr. Stoddart found himself up against an array of obstacles frustrating his quest for information.

In part one I said how Laurence Harding, PCC’s monitoring officer, had an oftentimes woeful grasp of local authority legislation, providing routinely wrong advice on all manner of topics.

Mike explains one of his biggest battles with the MO over on his blog in his post titled “Anatomy of a cover-up,” where grant documentation to which he was entitled by virtue of being an elected member was denied by Harding on the basis it contained information of building restoration work that was both eligible and ineligible for grant funding.

Councillors’ rights are set out in statute which Mr. Harding ought to have known like the back of his hand. Fortunately, Cllr. Stoddart did – and had to threaten Mr. Harding with High Court action before he relented, but even then he wrongly advised that the law only provided for an inspection and notes to be taken, not copies.

But Mike knew Larry was wrong on that, too – and copies are what he eventually got his hands on. Furthermore this was an entitlement of all councillors – to whom Mr. Harding emailed the following apology:

Dear Councillors,

I have recently had a conversation with Cllr Stoddart and re-examined the provisions of the Access to Information Rules.

I have to apologise to Cllr Stoddart and you for incorrect advice regarding the copying of the information relating to ineligible works.

I now agree with Cllr Stoddart that the Access to Information Rules relate to “all documents containing” ‘confidential’ information and not the segregated information to which the committee’s functions relate. Therefore any document may be copied in an unredacted format, but will remain confidential in your hands and not for further publication.

I apologise for my error and any inconvenience incurred.

Laurence J. Harding,

Monitoring Officer,

Pembrokeshire County Council.

Lest readers think that Laurence Harding’s legal failings, like this one, were without consequence, it was after Mr. Harding finally accepted he was wrong that Mike was able to root through the files where he and I made the aforementioned game-changing evidence discovery.

LESSONS LEARNT?

Not repeating the mistake of appointing an independent lay-member familiar with the word ‘independent’ like John Evans, his replacement – Swansea-based solicitor Peter Jones – was appointed in some rather questionable circumstances.

I highlighted the unique recruitment drive on my blog here and here. It included finance chief Mr. Haswell taking upon himself to extend the application window because he wasn’t satisfied with the quality of applicants.

One might wonder how a Swansea-based solicitor described by the Western Mail as “one of Wales’ most respected lawyers” would even know of this gig, let alone be interested. And he was the only applicant to apply during the extended deadline – which was only advertised on the council’s website! How lucky was he?!

Mr. Jones made his inaugural audit committee appearance at the September 2014 extraordinary meeting which, to date, is the most recent of its investigation into the grant irregularities and PCC’s bungles.

The IPPG contingent – to much faux surprise – immediately promoted Mr. Jones to become chairman, and “looking at his watch,” according to the Pembrokeshire Herald, he steered this important meeting to a conclusion – but not without controversy.

The Herald report, titled “Hostile exchanges at Audit Committee,” said: “Mr Jones’ role appeared to be less to encourage rigorous scrutiny and investigation than to accept everything the Committee were told by officers at face value,” and a certain young upstart really seemed to get up his nose:

“The Chair was visibly narked and exasperated by the efforts of Cllr Jacob Williams to extract even the merest scintilla of an apology from Dr Jones or Mr Evans.

On the basis that evidence is literally ‘that which can be seen’, Mr Jones appeared impatient when Cllr Williams continued to point out that the problem was not necessarily the old procedural manual but the failure to adhere to it.

Cllr Williams continued to press on in the teeth of the Chair’s rising impatience with his wish to actually hold someone to account for the repeated and manifest failings of the Council’s Development Directorate and Regeneration Unit.”

Swansea-based or not, Jones is an establishment man with links to Pembrokeshire, having lawyered for the Milford Haven Port Authority, and for Cllr. John Allen-Mirehouse during his ombudsman woes.

At this audit committee meeting, as well as findings and recommendations for improvement, many excuses were advanced by senior officers for what even Cardiff Bay’s EU auditors were now saying were PCC’s: “Procurement procedures [which] had weaknesses that allowed the possibility of collusion and fraud.”

You may have thought director of development Dr. Steven Jones’ penny and the bun ‘reassurance’ was memorable, but months later, now having to admit his departmental failings, the doctor’s excuse this time around was about a bun in the oven.

An unlikely scapegoat for such calamitous ‘errors’ was found in an unnamed officer. Her temporary absence from work on maternity leave, according to Dr. Jones, allowed grant claimants to exploit ‘loopholes’ and take his department’s highly experienced team for a ride – or, as it was put to the meeting, it: “led to weaknesses in operational delivery and supervision.”

But this didn’t wash. Blame didn’t come down to passively shoddy work like wrong figures entered into spreadsheets and sloppy clerical standards, but conduct so much more involved.

Public grant money was awarded for building restoration work that was either not carried out to the specified standard, or not carried out at all.

Chiefly, the disputed restoration jobs – described by Private Eye magazine as ‘phantom building works’ – were inspected and signed off as satisfactorily complete by suitably qualified council officers, where even confessed amateurs could see otherwise.

Clearly, the suggestion that construction work was signed off and cash wrongly paid out for phantom restoration project work all because of a junior staff member’s maternity leave was hopelessly inspired.

The plausibility of Dr. Jones and his officer’s pregnancy pretext was perhaps best summed-up by Old Grumpy with: “as the officer supervising the contract was a fifty-something male who has since taken early retirement on health grounds, that seems unlikely.”

Despite authoring and putting out an FAQ document in which Mr. Evans said that no money was paid out for residential projects (which was strictly against the rules) this claim was simply not true – money was paid out by Mr. Evans’ department at up to 70% grant funding for residential roofs.

Cllr. Stoddart had also said all along that the CPGS grant scheme’s procedure manual made quite clear that construction tenders for projects including both grant-eligible as well as ineligible work should be treated separately – but these rules were never followed or enforced by County Hall.

In an internal report Gwyn Evans gave Cllr. Stoddart’s assessment of this requirement the following brush-off: “Regrettably, Cllr Mike Stoddart has viewed the [grant scheme procedure manual] as if it was a policy document that is open to interpretation.”

Convinced Cllr. Stoddart was correct, I also enquired – and received a rather stuffy email from Mr. Evans telling me: “I shall answer your e-mail because as the author of the CPGS Procedure Manual I know better than anyone how it should be interpreted.”

Unsurprisingly, this issue was one of many recommendations for improvements to prevent similar future cock-ups – but the rules had been in place all along, they had just not been followed!

The failures in PCC’s grant administration were enormous – and signing-off phantom building works was only one opening for ‘abuse.’

As I reported in part one, the council’s procurement procedures were not followed and publicly-funded grant payments were signed off without sufficient evidence:

a) that restoration work had been carried out either at all or to the proper standards or specifications,

and

b) that the payments claimed to have been made for the grant-funded work by grant applicants were kosher.

Unbelievably, PCC accepted from Mr. Cathal McCosker chequebook stubs as proof of huge payments to his appointed construction firm, G&G Builders.

Even at the time this ‘proof’ was submitted by Mr. McCosker, a document on file shows that despite a junior officer raising concerns over the veracity of cheque stubs, “further evidence of defrayment (bank statements) was not requested.”

When Cllr. Stoddart said that a cheque stub “proves nothing more than that someone wrote the figures on the stub,” Mr. Evans wrote back: “what you say is not supported by the WEFO [Welsh European Funding Office] Instructions to Reporting Accountants” which, he told us: “states clearly that the evidence we have on file is as much evidence of defrayment as a bank statement is.”

And: “Whether you agree with the standard of evidence set by WEFO is not an issue for me or any officer of Pembrokeshire County Council.”

I was copied into this email, so I informed Mr. Evans that, by that stage even the council’s then finance director Mark Lewis and his deputy Jon Haswell were in agreement with Mike and I that a chequebook stub was not sufficient proof of expenditure.

Mr. Evans simply retorted: “I shall ensure that Mr Lewis and Mr Haswell are advised of WEFO’s guidance.”

Funny, then, that despite Mr. Evans’ insistence that a cheque stub was proof of payment – and as authoritative as a bank statement – the minutes of the audit committee’s meeting record that “WEFO had nevertheless insisted that bank statements were always required.”

It even transpired, after the meeting, that the council went back to Cathal McCosker asking him to provide bank statements to prove he’d paid his builders for the disputed works.

McCosker refused to co-operate, telling the council in an extremely interesting letter: “I can do without this in my life at the moment,” and instead made the bizarre offer to repay all of the grant cash he had received – as long as: “it would resolve all this Council in-fighting and all this adverse publicity that is being generated against me.”

McCosker’s repayment offer included grant funds to which it had never been disputed he was entitled.

And on the CPGS procedure manual authored by Gwyn Evans, who had previously said: “I know better than anyone how it should be interpreted,” the minutes of the September 2014 audit committee meeting record: “The Director of Development reiterated that the lessons learnt included that the CPGS Procedure Manual was not robust,” and that: “there was consensus with WEFO that the Procedure Manual required strengthening and this had been done.”

THE WAIT CONTINUES

Despite being handed by PCC all the evidence on a plate, the police’s inactivity on the grant scheme fraud allegations is bound to unsettle justice seekers – and for obvious reasons has led to accusations of even higher-level cover-ups.

The wait for any action on their investigation of already three years’ vintage continues – but I can reveal last week councillors received an email from County Hall following an update given by Dyfed-Powys Police, telling us that: “the file is with the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration” and “there have not been any arrests nor charges made at this time.”

But the authorities can move quickly if they want to. Readers may recall Pembroke Dock’s Pater Hall Community Trust, which also received European cash, was defrauded by its treasurer of more than £32,000.

Avoiding time at her majesty’s pleasure, the then 65-year-old Andrew Johnstone admitted theft over several years and was sentenced at Swansea Crown Court in March 2016 to a 15 months’ prison sentence, suspended for two years, and given a 12 month community order with 150 hours of unpaid work.

Mr. Johnstone was also “subject to a Confiscation Order for £5 under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002!”

So, what of the trumped-up charges against me? The last I heard was Mr. Harding’s email, which I published in part three, informing me that Mr. Evans told him he would be reporting me to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales – the local government ethics watchdog.

That was in November 2014, and, to this day, you may or may not be surprised to learn that I haven’t heard a peep from the ombudsman, despite Mr. Evans’ haughty and unequivocal allegation that I had committed a ‘clear breach’ of the councillors’ code of conduct.

And it is Mr. Evans’ own words, in his baseless complaint against me back in December 2013, to which I shall now return.

On the question of whether Mr. Evans created an “environment in which fraud can take place,” that he had “taken no steps to prevent such fraud,” that he is “incompetent at the proper management of European funding,” or that he may have been “complicit in a cover-up of such fraud,” I think that’ll be a matter of considerable interest for the historians.

All I can say is that if his or anybody else’s “professional integrity and reputation” has been tarnished by the council’s notoriously mismanaged grant scheme appropriation, it’s certainly not because of me or any of my actions, or my website or any other media outlet reporting the facts he tried to censor.

And if the County Hall set had spent less time in denial, less time covering their backsides and protecting their “career prospects” rather than the public’s money, there would be no cover-up or whitewashing exercise to speak of.

As for Laurence Harding: if he had spent as much time researching and providing accurate advice, probing for the truth and looking out for the public rather than the administration, as he did trying to nail one of his critics in a politically-motivated campaign, the council’s awful reputation might not be what it is today.

Thanks to the gutsy determination of Cllr. Mike Stoddart, his blog and the free press, in spite of Machiavellian efforts to silence legitimate criticism – and even coverage of the facts – the public are better informed than they ever have been, on this topic and many others.

Just as Cllrs. David Pugh, Jamie Adams and others believed the council’s officers’ words over Cllr. Stoddart’s highlights of irregularities, the public don’t need to take the council’s ‘official’ line and can see the evidence and form their own conclusions – unclouded by bias or career-protecting motives.

Laurence Harding has retired, but for his equally shameless antics in the Valentine’s Day massacre, survived a vote of no confidence – thanks to the support of councillors all too willing to abide by such unethical conduct.

The same goes for Bryn Parry-Jones, who, even worse, was paid hundreds of thousands of pounds by councillors who, by the same vote, brought an end to the disciplinary proceedings against him which could have resulted in a finding of gross misconduct – “so he could eff off into the night without having to account for his greed,” as it was memorably summed up in Rotten Boroughs.

From my own experience, the culture at County Hall has changed little. It is of course true that officers are unelected, but when councillors, regardless of seniority, are prepared to stand idly by or worse, reward municipal mischief, a good clear-out at the May 2017 council elections may be our only hope.


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27 Comments...

  • Welshman 23

    Well done Jacob, it’s a shame the amount of money that has been wasted. I am sure that the police will investigate and report back with their findings. Will it be done before the next elections? I hope so, for all Pembrokeshire people.

  • Keanjo

    Brilliant blog Jacob. I hope the Chief Constable reads it!

  • Gwylon Phillips

    Hi Jacob, my county councillor is Mike James. Villagers are seeking someone to stand.

    Having said that, thank you very much for your 4 part report on the disgraceful conduct of certain individuals at Pembs CC.

    I await the May elections with some hope. Pembs CC has a rotten name at present.

    Please carry on your outstanding work. It is appreciated by so many in the county.

  • Afraid I have to agree with Keanjo – through gritted teeth, of course.

  • John Devonald

    Well done to the two of you Jacob and Mike, and thanks for your websites on the Kremlin. I like this last update, nice work!

  • Phil

    Jacob, your fascinating articles are gripping to follow and deserve reading by all Pembrokeshire people.

    However I know you would want me to point out that you have made an error regarding your comments on the stolen funds from the Pater Hall Trust. The money stolen had nothing to do with a County Council administered grant, although I can understand how this assumption might be made.

    The Trust did have a renovation grant handled by the same group of officers, but it was very strictly monitored, and the payments were made in instalments ONLY after a bank statement was received each time showing the builder had been paid up to date.

    Every penny of the grant was paid to contractors and accounted for properly. (One reason why I am personally outraged – how can one company be handed over money so casually when a registered charity like the Trust had to jump through every imaginable hoop to get a grant?)

    The money stolen came from funds ALREADY held by the Trust in their bank accounts and took place gradually over a period of over three years, covered by fabricated accounts.

    This all started well before we applied for the heritage grant.

    I note your comments about the authorities moving quickly when they want to, compared to the grant investigation apparently moving at a glacial pace, but in the interests of full information, I should say that the Trustees were also disappointed at the length of time the police took to bring this case to closure.

  • Thank you for your comment Phil, and your further information – I was aware that the Pater Hall fraud was committed against the trust/you and your fellow trustees, and not the council/EU – I have in my possession, as you might, a report into the affair.

    However I have re-worded to make clear – I merely mentioned it in passing to highlight the fact that the police can act quickly on fraud cases if they want to – even if it was not quick enough for your liking.

    Gwyn Evans assessed this fraud in a two-part internal report, the second half of which was into the restoration grants debacle.

    On the Pater Hall Trust, he said “some warning signals were missed,” one of which was his department’s failure to pick up on the fact that “The Pater Hall Community Trust was fined by Companies House for late filing of their accounts.”

    I would have to say that the trustees come out of this report particularly badly.

  • Malcolm Calver

    Keanjo, I am sure the Chief Constable will read this excellent article and is fully aware of the shenanigans at County Hall, but surely the question is will the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) do anything about it?

  • Flashbang

    Faceless and nameless council officers should be named so the public knows who they are.

    No good having these people working for the taxpayer when all they are doing is pushing dodgy agendas.

    As for the police, it’ll take a long time to restore any credibility they might have had.

  • Welshman 23

    Would it speed up the process if this was sent to the Wales Audit Office?

  • Faux Espoir

    The epiphany as given Jacob makes surreal reading and highlights the back door operations that have existed through this and previous council administrations.

    A mandate should be instructed to the current Chief Executive to investigate the issues you have highlighted and report accordingly, with recommendations to full council.

    The recommendations may have far reaching consequences and could in fact be handed over to the Police for further direction (although this may take a while to bear fruit); the outcomes after the Yew Tree investigations have been a clear indication to the public that justice should be pursued with vigour.

    Those named by Jacob, especially Parry-Jones, Harding, Dr Jones and Gwyn Evans should be held accountable, even if they may have moved on from the Council payroll.

  • John Hudson

    On the BPJ issue, although “the council” had the benefit of bought in external legal advice, is it clear that the Leader had proper legal authority to discontinue the statutory disciplinary proceedings, or that councillors who voted for the arrangement, including the “unlawful element”, determined the matter in full knowledge of the available legal advice and the detailed case against the former CEO?

    I understand that while the WAO consider the pension payments unlawful, the council (whoever that is) do not and WE paid the questionable amount. This council, as ever, continues to consider itself infallible.

    Moving forward, fear not, things may be up for change with a new way of working! At the policy scrutiny committee meeting this week, the culture/leisure service plans were considered. Post an external consultant’s report (£25,000) and its recommendation that the council had hastened to follow on a promise of financial savings, a task and finish working group belatedly uncovered several operational, practical and legal reasons why the consultant’s favoured recommendation could not be put in place.

    Apparently this is attributed to unique Pembrokeshire circumstances (as is related in the webcast – how fortunate we are to have them). The council is concerned as to why they were not advised accordingly! You, I, and some councillors, might be surprised that council officers did not carry out the necessary feasibility and evaluation study to uncover these problems before rushing off to public consultation on the basis of proposals by an outside consultant.

    However, that exercise is apparently considered worthwhile by officers and the council is patting itself on the back at the success of its new scrutiny arrangement in uncovering the legal and operational obstacles, without which the council could have found itself in another legal mess.

    It became apparent that the ability to achieve savings included in the draft 2017/8 service budget may now be problematical. New potential ways of managing are being investigated including the establishment of a business orientated advisory panel, on the model of the charitable trust. This would advise councillors and officers on the way culture and leisure services could be managed, but with no responsibility, final decisions being taken by officers and councillors.

    In my view, this points to the current fundamental lack of detailed political direction provided by cabinet to officers, who are then obliged to meet imposed financial targets that may now be unrealistic and impractical.

    Serious damage to the long term viability of services may be inflicted by the cabinet’s overriding consideration of financial constraints. If it wants to retain services, there is a bottom line cost that must be met – accept it.

  • Dai Trump

    Two down, two to go.

    Gwyn Evans and Dr Jones are a disgrace and a waste of ratepayers’ money.

  • Galf

    Excellent series Jacob. You should have mentioned that Bryn Parry-Jones returned to his office in County Hall to ‘clear his desk’ in unusual circumstances aided by Councillor Brian Hall.

    Brian, who represents a ward of Pembroke Dock, seems remarkably unconcerned about the events that took place in his home town. I wonder if he and Mr. McCosker are acquainted? I’m told he has business connections in Ireland going back many years.

  • Rosieone

    Great stuff Jacob, congratulations on a fantastic series of articles.

    One can only hope (and trust) that the good people of Pembrokeshire use the opportunity of the May elections to rid us once and for all of the malignant IPPG.

    Perhaps a council chamber with ideals in line with those of honest, decent people will put pay to the grubby going ons in the corridors of the Kremlin…

  • Timetraveller

    At election time Bill Clinton’s comment: “it’s the economy, stupid!” is the bottom line.

    Unfortunately the IPPG will survive on the basis of the low council tax. You get less for less in Pembrokeshire, and much of that less has been achieved in part by some of the creative thinking that led to the Pembroke Dock grants scheme scandal.

    They are under fire about council tax, as they don’t have the fat that other councils may have to weather the storm. There will be rises, whatever rosy picture they paint.

    Many councillors are tolerant of the shenanigans that Jacob highlights simply because they see achieving a low council tax as their main purpose in being a councillor and to ensure their re-election.

    Standards and ethics come a poor second, Mike’s exposure of the Pembroke Dock grants scheme, for example, cost over £300,000, not to mention the early retirements etc that such scrutiny usually produces.

    The fragmented nature of Pembrokeshire politics also suggests the IPPG will survive, if for no other reason it would have to be created to cobble some sort of administration together.

    All we can hope for is an improvement in the gene pool, a big ask I know. If someone with an IQ more than 80 or so, stood for Camrose, that may help.

  • Hinc Lacrimae

    I have experienced more than one WEFO audit whilst in the employ of a Pembrokeshire organisation.

    As someone who served in the Armed Forces I have been responsible for public accounts and have been trained to audit non-public accounts.

    I prepared for my audits accordingly, not that I had much concern. Without exception I was underwhelmed by the rigour of the audit. My employer was more than happy, but had I been so inclined I could have played fast and loose with my future records once I knew how cursory the audits actually were.

    It would appear that PCC’s audits were on a par with mine, but some people lack integrity.

  • Phil

    We can only hope that the electorate is a little more concerned with standards and ethics than Timetraveller thinks they are.

    Part of the problem is that while individual blogs may show what has gone on in detail we have a principal local press that feels hamstrung by the advertising revenue it receives from the county council.

    I have seen many meetings where stories revealed would have been pounced upon by reporters of the calibre of Ethel Clarke of the West Wales Guardian and Vernon Scott of the Western Telegraph.

    That was a long time ago and now most council stories are merely an introductory paragraph followed by the hand-outs from the press office. How objective is that going to be?

    Thank goodness the Pembrokeshire Herald has remedied that situation to some extent lately. Will it be enough though?

  • John Hudson

    During the last policy overview and scrutiny committee meeting, there was a debate about the internal audit plan and PCC capacity.

    The council is finding it hard to recruit qualified auditors from outside. It therefore has to grow its own, which apparently has a perceived advantage in as much as they can be moulded into independent internal auditors that meet the council’s perceived requirements or ways of working.

  • Flashbang

    http://www.pembrokeshire-herald.com/31786/councillors-in-council-tax-arrears

    This is priceless, a shame the Herald didn’t name names. Leading by example should be a requisite for these dolts.

  • Welshman 23

    Name and shame these people that have not paid their council tax, if it’s taken this long to recover the monies then there is something wrong with the legal department again, it’s easy to get an attachment to earnings or deduct from their monthly salary they receive.

  • John Hudson

    Councillors are required to disclose at meetings if they are in arrears of council tax payable by them for at least two months, and shall not vote on any legally specified budget matters.

    Transgressions could end up in them being liable on summary conviction, prosecuted by the Director of Public Prosecutions for a fine for each offence. Their only get-out being if they can prove that they did not know that legal restrictions applied to them at the time of the meeting. As I can’t find anything in the code of conduct, this should not be too difficult.

    We have had an example of a councillor “being unaware” that our money or resources must not be used for election purposes. If the council does not disclose the names of those councillors in arrears of council tax payments, how are we to know if any of them transgresses?

    More importantly, how does the Director of Public Prosecutions get to know? Surely we cannot rely on council officers “shopping” them.

  • Brian

    Hmm…so in theory, John, some of our representatives could have been pushing dodgy knife-edge council votes over the line when they weren’t actually entitled to vote. If so surely this leaves the gate open for those decisions to be reversed?

    I think we probably do need to see the names. We all got to see which MPs were flipping their residences – surely this one is much more in the public interest.

  • Oliver Cromwell

    That some councillors are so arrogant as to choose not to pay their council tax, some for years, is beyond contempt. That officers have not pursued the offenders through the court, as they do with vigour for ordinary taxpayers, says much for the unhealthy state of our council.

    With an election close at hand we must look to those honest, law abiding councillors to act on our behalf to expose and name those involved, and provide the evidence for prosecution.

    The solution: at every council meeting, after apologies for absence, the list of councillors with details of current unpaid tax should be read out by the chairman. After two or three meetings there will be none to be read out.

    This matter is no different from the parliamentary expenses scandal.

  • Keanjo

    Councillors who are in arrears should be deprived of office and excluded from meetings. Their constituents should be informed of the reason for their exclusion and by-elections held. Something to be included in the constitution perhaps?

  • Flashbang

    Would I be correct in thinking that if you haven’t paid your subs to whichever political party/club/organisation you belong to then you are deemed non-financial and shall have no voice in anything?

    Obviously the IPPG is a cowboy outfit with no regard for the rules but even they should be embarrassed if any of their members were caught out.

    Sadly there doesn’t seem to be any protection for the public from rogue councils and representatives. At least the Americans can impeach Trump whereas the Welsh taxpayer has no recourse to offload the corrupt and dishonest.

  • Dai Trump

    Keanjo’s suggestion should apply to councillors who owe the authority rent as well on any property, house, shop or industrial unit.

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