Jacob Williams
Wednesday 4th December, 2013

Smear tactics

Smear tactics

Private Eye

Towards the end of last month, Private Eye magazine’s ‘Rotten Boroughs’ column covered the doubts over the Pembroke and Pembroke Dock historic building restoration grant schemes first raised by Cllr. Mike Stoddart on his ‘Old Grumpy’ website.

Pembrokeshire County Council administers the two publicly-funded grant schemes, and has attracted about as much notoriety for its excuse for withholding requested project documentation – on grounds of commercial sensitivity – as the findings of Old Grumpy’s investigations so far published on his website. And when something might be hiding, suspicions are only natural.
Two attempts to shine light onto the matter were tabled at the last full council meeting in October, where Cllr. Paul Miller and Cllr. Mike Stoddart put forward separate proposals which could assist in either establishing or disproving any possible financial irregularities surrounding the two grant schemes. As the proposers of the motions, they were able to address the council’s cabinet meeting in support of their proposals, when cabinet discussed them. This took place on Monday morning, in front of a packed public gallery.

The cabinet members and officers would have us believe that there is no controversy here, seemingly missing the point that the two requests seek to allow independent investigation into the matter – or non-matter, as the case may be. What unfolded at the meeting was a controversy all of its own, and, should the matter progress to a sticking point, there is definitely no way back for any of the cabinet members. They nailed their colours well and truly to the proverbial mast. No back-tracking is possible.

First up was Cllr. Miller, who spoke in favour of his request that ‘a politically-balanced panel of five councillors be immediately established and directed to undertake a complete review’ of the two grant schemes operating in Pembroke Dock.’

In his supporting written statement submitted prior to the meeting, Cllr. Miller wrote: “Allegations have been made loudly and consistently by members of the public and indeed Members of this Council to the effect that funds controlled / administered by this Authority, under the auspices of the Town Heritage Initiative and Commercial Property Grant Schemes, have been misappropriated.”

He also wrote: “There is nothing to be feared from this investigation. The facts will be investigated and then communicated quickly and unequivocally. If there has been wrong doing, it shall be exposed. If not, the schemes shall benefit from improved public and Member confidence.”

Nothing wrong with that, you might think? Wrong! Very little discussion took take on the topic, but council leader Cllr. Jamie Adams did spare some time to ask Cllr. Miller if he was acting for himself, or whether his strings were being pulled by Cllr. Stoddart. It is, to anybody who has concerns over the grants scheme, quite a derogatory remark. In the spirit of fairness, Cllr. Adams should be granted some lenience for having such thoughts crossing his mind. There’s a vast mound of evidence going back years which shows that he finds the concept of thinking, saying or doing anything for himself, completely alien, so the idea that Cllr. Miller delved into the matter unassisted, probably didn’t cross his mind.

The cabinet reasoned their refusal to support Cllr. Miller’s request on the basis that the council’s audit committee will be investigating this matter in February, off the back of previous attempts to prod the topic by Cllr. Michael Williams. But was he put up to it by Cllr. Stoddart?!

So, to set up Cllr. Miller’s politically-balanced panel would be unnecessary and duplicative, and that was the end of that one.

Up next on the agenda was Cllr. Stoddart, who was there to try and sell the proposal he had tabled: “that all information (bills of quantities, tender reports, final accounts, etc) on the Pembroke and Pembroke Dock commercial property grants scheme is made available on a confidential basis to all Council Members.”

As Cllr. Miller’s proposal was not supported because it was similar to what the audit committee was going to be investigating in February, then Cllr. Stoddart’s proposal, which would simply allow members to inspect the available information for themselves, would surely have a fighting chance of success? Wrong!

I shan’t go into the details given by cabinet members and officers for withholding this information from all councillors, and neither shall I delve into the reasons why Cllr. Stoddart wanted to allow members to access them. These are both already well-documented elsewhere, suffice to say I’m of the opinion that the strength of the two arguments is on the side of disclosing the documents, and not that they should remain under wraps. It should be pointed out at this stage that the cabinet’s decision on both proposals is not a final one but will form the recommendation to be voted on by all councillors at full council on 12th December. If the arguments boil down to ‘alleged misappropriation’ vs. ‘Nothing to see here,’ you don’t need to be a genius to realise that supporting councillors’ access to the grant scheme documentation indicates no more support for the merits of either argument, than a judge might indicate by allowing an appeal.

In a nutshell, Cllr. Stoddart has many reasons to suspect that grant money has been paid out under both the THI and the CPG schemes for work which was either never carried out, or was not completed to the standard (or extent) that it should have been, for the amount of public money dished out. As readers of his website posts on this topic will know, these many reasons for suspicion have arisen from several Pembroke Dock properties, and not just one or two.

‘The council’ – that is: the cabinet, senior officers and those who are involved in administering the grants scheme, say that the authority’s own internal auditors, the Heritage Lottery Fund and WEFO have given the thumbs up to the schemes, with nothing at all raised in common along Cllr. Stoddart’s lines. Further, they say that the works highlighted by Cllr. Stoddart have either been completed as they should have been, or that the information he has been able to piece together relates to building work which never received a penny of grant money but was privately-funded.

As a member of the council, he said he should be able to access these documents to be able to carry out his elected role, and told the full public gallery that his previous efforts to access the information by asking officers directly or via Freedom of Information requests had been either refused, or that what he had received was redacted so much as to make it entirely useless.

If the cabinet members and presenting officers went into the meeting hoping to shrug off concerns over the integrity of the grants schemes as baseless, and to reassure themselves that Grumpy is barking up the wrong tree, then he might have come back with the old ‘nothing-to-hide’ argument along the lines of: “if you think what I’m saying is unfounded, then allow me to access the evidence so I can see for myself.”

He actually went a step further by telling the cabinet that they had a duty under the members’ code of conduct (which all councillors have to agree to be bound by before accepting office) to report him to the ombudsman if they genuinely believed he was bringing the office of councillor into disrepute.

After the meeting, Mike explained to me and a few others that, many moons ago, he had been in the building trade. His firm, at its peak, employed as many as thirty men, building many key projects around the county including schools and large commercial properties, as well as housing, so he might know a thing or two about building and the construction industry.

He also recounted how, in 1977, he was the key prosecution witness in a seven-day Haverfordwest Crown Court trial which banged-up a corrupt civil servant for fraud. Fifty-nine year old Property Services Agency quantity surveyor Donald Hagger was jailed for fifteen months by Judge Charles Pitchford, after the jury returned a guilty verdict in the face of what Judge Pitchford described as “totally overwhelming evidence.”

Despite being over a decade before my birth, I remembered hearing about this story because in January of this year a contemporaneous and detailed account of the court case which was originally printed in the West Wales Guardian, was republished in full in Thomas Sinclair’s legal column in his Pembrokeshire’s Best magazine. He said that his mother had found the article among his late grandfather’s possessions. The man convicted was his grandfather’s boss, and Sinclair wrote: “the star witness in the case was a then much younger Mike Stoddart who, as we all know, is ‘Old Grumpy,’ and a local county councillor.”

R. M. Stoddart Construction Ltd. had completed a construction job for the Ministry of Defence, and Hagger’s job was to draw up the final account for the project, on behalf of the ministry (to take the original tender and make modifications to take account of any additions and omissions for final settlement). Hagger approached Stoddart with an offer that if he paid him a sum of money – known as a kickback – Hagger would arrange for the job’s final accounts to be falsely inflated so the ministry would pay R. M. Stoddart Construction Ltd. more money than it was actually due.

Cllr. Stoddart went to the police, who duly setup a sting operation in which he agreed to hand over police cash to Hagger, which, along with wiretap evidence and his testimony, formed the ‘overwhelming evidence’ that was used to secure the conviction.

The newspaper reported that, following sentencing, the judge addressed the then young(er) grumpy, by saying:

“I am sure that the Department of the Environment and the whole civil service owe a great debt to your public service. By going to the police, you knew that you would be turning away an easy £1,000. I can only thank you on behalf of the whole British public for taking this courageous step. I am sure that there have been times when you have regretted it. If there were more public spirited and less greedy people in the world like you then there would be less corruption.”

So it would be fair to say that old man Mike knows not only a fair thing or two about construction, but about rooting out corruption within the construction industry.

It may have been a pre-planned tactic, or possibly a spur of the moment decision, but Cllr. Jamie Adams took a big leap of faith during Monday morning’s cabinet meeting. Perhaps he thought if he could discredit the witness, his cabinet would look reasonable in refusing to support the request of a deranged sceptic. If it back-fired, it could fuel further speculation as to why some were trying so hard to keep the paperwork under lock and key. The execution of this smear campaign was paramount, and the stakes were high. Succeed, and possibly get Old Grumpy off your back. Fail, and everyone will be left scratching their heads, even those who never had suspicions in the first place.

Following Cllr. Stoddart’s lengthy presentation to cabinet, Cllr. Adams commented that there ‘seems to be quite some confusion on your part, Mike’ over which works were eligible for grant funding, and those which were not.

We are no closer yet to being satisfied that the grant schemes are all above board as we’re told, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether this smear tactic was applied successfully.

MS – “There’s no confusion on my part whatsoever, Jamie. I understand it. I can assure you I’ve been in the building trade most of my life, I understand…I understand this thing better than anybody else in this room.”

JA – “May I ask, then…”

MS – “Right? Anybody else. Anybody. That includes Sue Perkins.”

JA – “…was your experience…was your experience successful in the building trade?”

MS – “It was, very successful.”

JA – “Aah, that’s not the information that’s been passed to me, recently.”

MS – “Oh, really?”

JA – “And there are some serious questions to your argument…that we will come into…”

MS – “Can you elaborate on this business of my career in the building industry?”

JA – “I was passed some information recently which would suggest that it was less than successful, and from some of the submission you’ve made, your understanding of the building trade is not what I would have expected.”

MS – “A bit less innuendo, leader, and let’s have it out straight. Come on…you can’t…”

JA – “I’ll give you a good example.”

MS – “Go on then.”

JA – “The fact that you consider some sort of comparison between Persimmon Homes* and work on Heritage Initiative, and Commercial Property Grants, leads the argument to be…I’ll choose the word that you provided, and that is spurious…”

MS – “No, no. You started by…you brought the subject up about…”

JA – “…and I would suggest that the argument around new homes and commercial grants within a THI in a, uh, a very special place from an architectural point of view is a flawed argument, but, nevertheless, we will move on and we will…”

MS – “No, no, let me…no, no I’m not moving on. You…”

JA – “…have some consideration of the facts.”

MS – “That does not address your innuendo about my career in the building industry. Now will you please…”

JA – “Mike, I am chairing this meeting. However I will ask you to stand down…”

MS – “You’re going to bully me, you mean?”

JA – “…and we will go on to consider the presentation* that we have. Jon may I ask…”

*The Persimmon Homes reference related to a point Cllr. Stoddart had made with respect to No. 25 Dimond Street, Pembroke Dock. £220,000 is said to have been spent on restoration work. Cllr. Stoddart said that he could not see how it was possible to spend that sort of money restoring this small building, noting that it could be knocked down and rebuilt completely twice for that sort of money, and that, for not far shy of that amount, Persimmon Homes would sell two semi-detached properties including the price of the plot of land, the sewerage, road and service connections.

*The presentation was a PowerPoint presentation delivered on the wall projector screen by the authority’s head of internal audit, Jonathan Haswell. Cllr. Adams moved on to this presentation and did not elaborate any further upon his smear.

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  • Paul Absalom

    Jamie Adams wants to cut services in Pembrokeshire, but allows this to go on. If there is nothing to hide, surely it is in the public interest to allow all councillors access to these accounts.

    He has also used in the past, David Cameron’s words ‘we are all in this together.’ Can you please tell him I am still waiting for my £4000 expenses.

    R M Stoddart Construction Ltd. was a successful business. As a youth I worked for his brother and knew him and many that he employed.

  • PR

    Astounded!!! What is going to become of this Jacob. Is this the end of this matter?

  • Keanjo

    The issue was reported in Private Eye under the Rotten Boroughs column. If the County Council wish to protect their tarnished reputation they must sue – otherwise the majority of people in Pembrokeshire will believe the allegations.

    The only way forward must be an independent inquiry into this matter.

  • Well the final say on the two requests (Cllr. Miller’s and Cllr. Stoddart’s) will be decided on 12th December by full council at County Hall, meeting 10am onwards – or, of course, you should be able to tune in online to see it live at: http://www.pembrokeshire.public-i.tv

  • Chas.

    Keanjo calls for an ‘independent inquiry’ into this matter. There can be no truly ‘independent inquiry’ until membership of that secret cult, whose members are sworn to secrecy and to protect each other even if it means breaking the law, are exposed and banned from inquiries lest they be tempted to sin by lying and deceit!!

  • Goldingsboy

    I see, from today’s Pembrokeshire Herald, that Stephen Crabb MP has been successful in persuading Welsh Water to install an odour control unit at Llangwm Ferry to combat a “persistent odour problem”.

    I wonder if anyone has a similar solution to the cocktail of smells which constantly ooze out of Haverfordwest?

  • Keanjo

    Chas, when I wrote independent I meant independent of the County Council by a small team nominated by, say, the Welsh Assembly who would take evidence from all the involved parties and issue a public statement on their findings.

  • Apologies to Paul Absalom (first comment) and Goldingsboy (sixth comment) – both of your comments were, for some reason or other, held in the ‘spam’ queue and I have only just noticed your comments to approve.

    Very good, Goldingsboy. Speaking of unpleasant odours, you may recall that something brown and smelly was sent in a cardboard box to a certain staff member in County Hall in summer 2012. I never did hear what became of the police investigation into the matter, if anybody knows, get in touch.

  • Goldingsboy

    Has Cllr. Adams, with his contemptible smear on Mike’s former profession as a builder, breached the local government code of bringing the office of councillor into disrepute?

  • Barrie Woolmer

    Who will be the first to contact the fraud squad?

  • Jon Preston

    As quoted on Old Grumpy’s Homepage “When you’re taking flak, you must be over the target” (Pat Robinson).

    The underhand and unsubstantiated comments by Jamie Adams only go to expose the fact that he is well and truly rattled.

  • A Brock

    I am looking forward to the Council meeting on 12th December. Let’s hope we have a proper holding to account of Humpty and his crew. No doubt, Cllr. Arwyn Williams will chair the meeting with his usual lack of bias and sense of fair play.

  • Pembrokeshire Poet

    Cabinet Capers.

    “I have grave concerns about these grants down the Dock”,
    Said Grumpy to boos from the cabinet flock.

    If the grants were apportioned properly and honestly,
    Access to documents could prove it robustly.

    We keep on hearing: “all’s above board”,
    So, if they’re all right, why won’t they accord?

    Grumpy tried to convince the Leader and cabinet,
    But, as he expected, they were all just plain obstinate.

    All round the table thought ‘there’s nothing to see’,
    But then they would – they’re at the Leader’s mercy.

    To anyone sensible it was totally one-sided:
    Grumpy was prepped, and the Leader? Misguided!

    Adams, though, had planned a crescendo,
    Which came in the form of an innuendo!

    “How successful was your career in construction?”
    Asked the Leader, as an introduction.

    “Very successful”, said Old Grumpy in answer.
    (He’d taken the bait laid down by the chancer).

    “That’s not the info I’ve been passed”,
    Exclaimed the farmer to a room aghast.

    He was happy enough, to have slurred,
    But didn’t say what (if anything) he’d heard.

    “Leader! Will you elaborate upon your slur,
    About the success of my building career”.

    Old Grumpy pushed further: “Come on! Let’s have it!”
    Adams went blank – it’s a bit of a habit.

    The plan backfired, or so it would seem,
    Perhaps our dear Leader just ran out of steam.

    He tried to move on with the cabinet agenda,
    But Grumpy, as ever, would never surrender.

    Grumpy persisted, but was bullied by Adams,
    Whose grasp of diplomacy is not far off Saddam’s.

    We still don’t know why he pointed the finger;
    But now a question of Adams does linger:

    Why did he stoop to anecdotal rancour?
    Perhaps it’s because he’s a total…

  • Keanjo

    Poet, I hope your last verse doesn’t rub Jamie up the wrong way.

  • Dave Edwards

    Where have all the comments gone?

    From the Telegraph everyone.

    This morning there were 26 comments on the story “Emotions run high…” but now none. It was obviously getting too close for comfort. Perhaps the information that Carms CC have thrown in the towel leaving Farmer Adams to plough a lonely furrow over allegedly unlawful pension payments caused some difficulty for someone.

  • Hi Dave, you are right, how strange. Not only has every single previously visible comment been taken off, but the comments facility has been removed entirely so no new ones can be added either.

    There were 26 comments on the article at 5:22 this morning.

    How do I know? Each and every one of them can still be read on Google’s cached copy as it trawled the page in the early hours.

  • Goldingsboy

    Jacob, I really do appreciate what you have done to improve the appearance of my fellow Neanderthal’s stone tablet. However, you really must avoid rushing into an assumption that we are able to grasp all other aspects of homo-sapiens technology.

    I am referring to your recent observation that all the comments have disappeared from the online version of the Western Telegraph and then you, quite tantalisingly, reveal that these “disappeared voices” can all be found in a “Google cache”. Explain, please, or provide a link.

  • Darren Kenniford

    It was the same following Mr Calver’s comments over Firefighters, quite a lot came out of the woodwork, top of the “most comments page” yet, it fell off the board like a stone. To be replaced by comments made weeks before on flowers!

    The Telegraph to me isn’t independent. You should use the new paper, it seems you fart, and you’re in it lol.

  • Hi Goldingsboy, I did provide the link, but I will provide it again which you can access by clicking here.

    Bear in mind that what you will see at that page is not the Western Telegraph website, but Google’s archive of it.

    As Google trawls the web it saves an archive of every page it visits which is called a ‘cache.’ That link will take you to Google’s ‘cached’ version of the article as it appeared when Google last trawled the page, which, as I type, is still 5.22 yesterday morning.

    At some point Google will trawl the site again (maybe this evening, for instance) at which point, Google will update its cache to reflect what it sees – for example, as the comments have been removed from the actual Western Telegraph site then they will no longer appear in Google’s cached version of the page.

    So until Google updates its cache again, by clicking the above link, you can still see the archived version of the article as it appeared before the comments got the chop!

  • Keanjo

    Switch to the Herald!

  • Dave Edwards

    I see that the comments (well, 15 of them) have been reinstated.

  • Malcolm Calver

    Nice to see you back Mr Kenniford, perhaps you would kindly answer the questions I raised with you regarding your comment in the Assumed liability article dated 14th November?

  • Martin Lewis

    I emailed the WT to ask why the comments had been removed and received the reply:

    Dear Mr Lewis,

    Thank you for your email.

    I took the decision to temporarily suspend the comments facility for legal reasons while a matter relating to some of them is dealt with.

    I hope it will be possible to restore the rest of the comments shortly.

    Kind regards.

  • Dave Edwards

    Only 15 survived and in spite of 4 comments on the day they were culled it has not reappeared on “most commented”.

  • Goldingsboy

    The Cabinet’s response to Cllr. Stoddart’s Pembroke Dock investigation can be summed up as:




  • Keanjo

    I watched the webcast and was surprised to note that all the questions were dealt with by the appropriate cabinet members with no apparent input by the Directors and I am greatly impressed that these laymen, in professional terms, have mastered subjects which their professional servants took many years of study and experience to learn.

  • Mike Cook

    I watched the full council meeting on the web, what a shower the IPG are, the chair was being told how to run the meeting by the Chief Executive, Jamie Adams is so out of touch, he thinks no one is cares about what is going on with the grants in Pembroke Dock, Pembrokeshire people deserve better than this.

    When are we going to have a statement on the pension deal? More for the Private Eye to investigate I think.

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