Saturday, 10 October 2020

The slush fund to go...sort of

(Update; Full council meeting postponed until Thursday 22nd October at 2pm)

As I said in my previous post above, full council will discuss the future of the slush fund, (or unlawful libel indemnity clause to give it it's 'official' name) on Wednesday 14th October..

The agenda has been published and whilst it looks like pressure has been brought to bear and the unlawful libel indemnity provision will be removed (or 'recalled', sounds better I guess) from the council's constitution, there's a fudge.
The wording of the recommendation (a single paragraph, there are no accompanying documents or legal advice) suggests that the provision will actually still be there, albeit under the cover of the general 'Personnel' function of the Executive Board:

"and to reserve the right to exercise that power [to sue] to the Executive Board under its existing personnel function"
(my emphasis)

So, instead of the chief executive suing you, Emlyn Dole or whoever is in the hot seat will have the honour instead, acting on behalf of senior officers. As most Carmarthenshire councillor 'functions' can be delegated to senior officers, one wonders if anything's changed. 

Anyway, clearly the outrageous, illegal and chilling clause had to go, and, after so many years of  campaigning and writing about it, it's something of a victory. 
By the way, I was spot on when I called it Mark James' slush fund, Mr Justice Tugendhat.

I have to say also that Labour leader Cllr Rob James has been pushing for removal since July 2018, and the Auditor General also rejected the begging letters from Ms Rees Jones and, of course Mark James, before he hastily retired.

Naturally, neither Linda Rees Jones nor Emlyn Dole think there was anything wrong with it. I've lost count of the number of times I've said it was illegal (or, to use the local government jargon 'unlawful') and how Ms Rees Jones and former CEO Mark James lied to councillors and the courts in defence of their own illegal actions. 
Emlyn Dole should hang his head in shame, along with the whole Plaid Cymru group, for demanding reinstatement, particularly as he was so opposed to it all when in opposition, 

Ms Rees Jones should be sacked.

They cannot, of course, admit defeat. Ms Rees Jones' job has been on the line for seven years and god forbid they'd have to send the bailiffs to Mark James' door for the illegal cash he pocketed...

So, here's the fudge.

It is, according to Ms Rees Jones, perfectly legal to fund officers to bring libel cases under 'duty of care'. She has based this argument on the Bedford Council case from 2002.

I will explain.

Three senior officers were publicly funded to bring an action for defamation against a local newspaper and the whole shebang, which they pretty much lost, cost the Bedford taxpayers £500,000 in legal costs. They defended their expenditure (obviously decided behind closed doors, sound familiar?) under 'duty of care'.

The Auditor challenged it in court but the judge decided he was too late, and that it would be 'too onerous' for the officers to repay the money, so he turned down the challenge.

He added that this was a 'one off' and gave dire warnings to any other council considering such a move.

It is this, erm, ringing endorsement of libel indemnities that Ms Rees Jones relies, and has decided that the Council, as the 'employer' has the right to sue in the same circumstances.

This was not the end of the story at Bedford though. .

Not only were the taxpayers outraged that their precious cash had been squandered but so was the MP. The matter was then discussed in Parliament and led, directly, to the eventual ban on the bringing of libel actions with public money in 2004, the same legislation being adopted by the Welsh government in 2006.

It is well worth reading what was said by the MP about the case in 2002, and the 'duty of care' argument and it was these parliamentary discussions which led to the eventual ban.

Hansard, April 2002;

Bedford borough council has agreed to use public money to maintain private libel actions. It has also committed staff time and resources in support for many months. It has justified that under its duty of care to employees.

I am deeply disturbed by the situation, which has serious and wide-ranging implications. The obligations and responsibilities associated with the duty of care do not include maintaining private libel actions initiated by employees. Duty of care, as I understand it, covers matters such as safeguarding health and safety, dealing promptly with grievances, taking reasonable care, and acting in good faith.

I do not believe that any case law suggests that duty of care extends to funding private libel action. I do not believe that an employment tribunal in the land would consider any failure to sponsor such action to be a fundamental breach of the contract of employment. Councils can and do fund prosecutions when employees have been assaulted in the course of their duties, but there appears to be no duty of care to fund libel actions... 

I turn now to the maintenance by a local authority of libel actions. I strongly oppose that, because the use of public money to suppress public criticism would fundamentally undermine freedom of expression and, therefore, democracy itself. If a Government or a local council disagree with comments made, they have suitable avenues open to them to obtain a remedy without recourse to litigation. The normal and healthy response is to investigate the complaint, debate the issues openly and issue a rebuttal in the media.

Public criticism of an officer or councillor may sometimes be harsh and unfair, but that is an occupational hazard. The more senior the individual in an organisation, the better one would expect that to be understood. If a council considers a particular instance worthy of an investigation and a reasonable response, it has the means to pursue such a course of action; supporting and maintaining a defamation action is clearly beyond reasonable....

Not maintaining an action for damages surely means not doing so either directly on the local authority's own account, or indirectly, or by proxy by funding its employees to do so. Naturally, individuals enjoy the right to sue for damages, and that includes individual councillors and officers. It is the maintenance of such actions through public funds that is wrong. Bedford borough council has done just that. I believe it is wrong, and many of my constituents believe it to be wrong. They know that there are dozens of better ways of spending their money than through the irresponsible commitment of hundreds of thousands of pounds on legal costs. They know that this whole business represents a diversion of time and energy from the real tasks that should concern the council—those of promoting the borough and running effective services. I could not agree with them more, and I think that the people of the borough are owed an apology by the council....

...local authorities should not maintain and support libel actions directly or indirectly. I hope that he {the minister] will also agree that such actions cannot be in the public interest, that they would undermine freedom of speech in our country, that they form no part of duty of care, and that they must therefore be stopped once and for all.

          Patrick Hall MP Hansard 2002

As I said above, it was stopped, once and for all, in 2006

Except for Carmarthenshire County Council.

In my case Mark James knew he was acting unlawfully so ensured that the Exec Board, at the time, gave it the rubber stamp. He even co-wrote the recommendation to bankroll himself and stayed in the meeting to ensure they complied. Fraud, in other words.

We will have to see what it said on Wednesday and whilst the removal of the offending clause is to be welcomed, and, to be honest, I can't see the council treading this path again, it must be recognised that they were unlawful in funding the chief executive's counterclaim, and there is NO power to use public money to sue for defamation, either in a claim, or counterclaim.
This is an illegal and deeply disturbing legacy from a deeply disturbed Mark James, and needs to go.

This, from the same Hansard speech, is from earlier case law in South Africa, and sums up the moral of the story;

"I have no doubt that it would involve a serious interference with the free expression of opinion hitherto enjoyed in this country if the wealth of the state, derived from the state's subjects, could be used to launch against those subjects actions for defamation because they have, falsely and unfairly it may be, criticised or condemned the management of the country."

We will see what is said on Wednesday.

* * *

PS. I must also mention that the City Deal business case for the Wellness Thing, the Sauna-on-the-swamp, is on Wednesday's agenda. The fact it's now had to be rebranded (due to the well documented scandal and ongoing police investigation) as 'Pentre Awel', says all you need to know. 
Despite involving £mms of public money, it's being discussed behind virtual closed doors, public and press excluded...

Monday, 5 October 2020

Century Wharf - a forged signature, and the cladding scandal

Since the Grenfell tragedy in 2017, cladding inspections have been required for all high rise residential buildings in the UK. The UK government provided cash to replace the flammable cladding in England, although this has now run out, but the Welsh Government only provided money for publicly owned buildings, not those in private ownership.

In Wales, many of these flats are in leasehold ownership and residents have found that without the proper certification that the cladding is ok (an EWS1 form), they are impossible to either sell, or to obtain a mortgage to buy one. It's left swathes of modern developments pretty much worthless whilst the developers, management companies and residents argue over cost and responsibility.
In most cases it seems that the leaseholders' are being expected to pick up the cost. Plenty of detailed background information can be found online, the hashtag #endourcladdingscandal is particularly informative.

Some unscrupulous individuals have found ways to cash in on the scandal, and at Century Wharf, Cardiff, a forged signature on a EWS1 form has been discovered. There appeared to be more than one. We know, of course that former CEO Mark James just happens to control the Right To Manage (RTM) company at Century Wharf.

As the Western Mail reports, a concerned resident and retired police officer Gareth Griffiths grew suspicious and contacted the surveyor who had 'signed' the form only to be told that she knew nothing about it whatsoever, she had not signed the form, inspected the building, nor had any contact with the company contracted to carry out the fire safety survey. 
His actions saved the residents over £100k in fees for fraudulent certification, though still left the uncertainty over the cladding. Mr Griffiths was also instrumental back in 2017 highlighting the problems caused by poor management and Airbnb guests. 
At the time, Mr James, who, by the way, had not declared any of his business interests to his employers, called those who raised concerns, like Mr Griffiths, a 'cancer'.

The company which manages the flats, Warwick Estates Ltd had contracted Specialist Facade Inspections Ltd (SFI Ltd) to carry out the certification. SFI Ltd have claimed that the third party surveyors they used to sign off the forms are to blame, although they don't identify who that was exactly. They are, however, adamant that they're not at fault.

An investigation is ongoing, and presumably the police are now involved.

Warwick Estates have yet to provide a statement on the issue and neither, it seems, has the RTM company Chaired by Mr James, who also owns property at Century Wharf.

It is, of course, early days but one wonders whether Mr James, or Warwick Estates are being particularly co-operative with the investigations, or not. It was surely the role of the RTM to provide oversight and represent the leaseholders' interests, yet, if it wasn't for Mr Griffiths they'd have flushed £100k down the toilet.

As I said in my previous post on Century Wharf, which dealt with Mr James' use of his business friends to supply telephony services, he got rid of AGMs for the RTM company and, according to sources, runs it with the same charm and hubris that he did at the Council for seventeen years.

I'm not suggesting for one moment that Mr James is somehow involved with forged documents...despite his history at Boston council, let alone his history at Carmarthenshire Council, nor that any of his business acquaintances are involved, nor even his own building inspection company or consultancy firm.... 

What I would say is that, the latest scandal aside, the RTM company would be well shot of Mr James. He spent seventeen years plundering the council, bullying, lying and manipulating his way to favour his friends and silence his critics. He used public resources to further his own interests and private vendettas, and has been investigated by the police more than once, with one investigation, relating to fraud and bribery, currently ongoing. 
He's a crook. 

What is pretty clear, so far, is that in this case, the management fell very short of acting with a duty of care and due diligence, and with SFI Ltd claiming so strongly that they are in fact the victims, it seems there's still some way to go with this. 

Monday, 28 September 2020

The slush fund - will it stay or will it go? - Updated

Update October 2nd;

Well, it seems a decision was made at the CRWG meeting over the future of the slush fund and will be on the agenda at the full council meeting on October 14th.
Of course we can't possibly be told what the outcome was until then, it's obviously deeply classified information, maybe even an issue of international security.
How bloody ridiculous.
To recap (see my post below), there were three options  - take note of the Auditor General's clear rejection and remove the unlawful libel clause completely, they could reinstate it, or leave it 'suspended' for eternity, based on the continued and deliberately misleading advice from Ms Rees Jones. 

I very much hope they've gone for the first option though I suspect they may have gone with the third, being completely unable to admit that they knew very well that the libel provision was illegal.
They better not have gone with the second option....

I had asked Ms Rees Jones the following questions this morning; 

Did the CRWG meeting go ahead? Were unlawful libel indemnities discussed?
What was the outcome?
Please forward copies of paperwork relating to the Item

She replied this afternoon;

Dear Mrs. Thompson,

No CRWG did not discuss anything about an “unlawful” libel indemnity. It did, however, discuss “libel indemnities”.

As you know, we only release the action notes of CRWG meetings after they have been released to members. However, it is our intention to report the outcome of the discussions on the libel indemnity to County Council’s October meeting as part of a wider report on the review of our Constitution, so it may well be the case that the Agenda for County Council will have been published before the action notes of CRWG are circulated to members, so you will be able to see the outcome there.


Just a brief mention that the thorny issue of unlawful libel indemnities is due to crop up again on Thursday, October 1st, or so I'm told by head of legal Linda Rees Jones. Ms Jones continues to carry the torch, and the can, for this disturbing, toxic, and unique legacy of Mark James' dictatorship, a legacy also warmly embraced by Plaid Cymru council leader Emlyn Dole. So much so that he even requested that this chilling provision was extended to cover himself.

Two years and four months have passed since the Plaid and Independent majority on the cross party Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) outrageously decided to reinstate the suspended clauses which enables senior officials to sue for libel with taxpayers' money.                     
Given that the Wales Audit Office has been less than impressed when Mark James availed himself of this personal slush fund in 2012, CRWG, and Ms Rees Jones, thought they'd better put it past the Auditor General first, as the minutes below show. Mark James was, of course, still in post. 


Anyway, time passed, a letter was written, but the AG was having none of it and warned about potential judicial reviews if they tried it again. 

Undeterred, Ms Rees Jones (and co-signatory to the clause, director of money and'responsible' S151 officer Chris Moore), without reference to elected members, made a further plea to the AG. Again this was rejected.

CRWG will finally be considering the matter, and the AG's responses, behind virtual closed doors, next Thursday.

The provision of public money for senior officers to bring actions for libel was outlawed in 2006; 

(3) No indemnity may be provided under this Order in relation to the making by a member or officer indemnified of any claim in relation to an alleged defamation of that member or officer.. 

As the law stands, in some cases public funds can be used in the defence of an alleged libel but not to bring a claim, or a counterclaim. A public body itself cannot sue, nor can it get round the ban by funding an individual as a proxy. It's as simple as that.
An individual can sue, of course, but not with taxpayers' money.

The council, namely the dynamic duo Mark James and Linda Rees Jones, having used the provision, spent the following years defending their position. Ms Rees Jones's argument is that case law overrides the 2006 Legislative Order. The case law she relies on pre-dates the Order and, in fact, warns against commencing libel action in this way.

The Order was made in 2006 specifically to clarify the position and ensure public funds would not be used to sue the public, stifle debate and chill investigative journalism.

The clause was suspended in 2014 after the Public Interest Report but not removed. I have called for it to be removed completely. I asked Wendy Walters for her view sometime last year, she climbed on the theoretical fence and replied that it was a 'political decision'. 

In fact it's never mattered who held 'political power', from the previous Labour/Independent administration to the present Plaid/Independent crowd; with the assistance of the loaded, dishonest reports penned by the ever dutiful Ms Rees Jones, opposing Mark James was never an option for fainthearted, pliable councillors.
However, although his protege, Ms Walters, remains, the chief puppeteer has gone, he's taken his shady dealings elsewhere, so there is a real option to remove this particular legacy once and for all.

Another significant argument for it's removal, if one is really needed, is the potential cost risk associated with unpredictable libel litigation, it can be a very expensive business, as I know. 

Exposing the taxpayer to this risk is foolhardy and irresponsible, I am surprised that Chris Moore, the S151 officer is happy to support it - particularly as, at the moment, there are more pressing things to spend public money on, such as a global pandemic and a £8m black hole. 
As for Ms Rees Jones, she's still protecting her own back, and Mark James' slush fund, and their unlawful, dishonest actions in 2012. They should have both been sacked for gross misconduct.

It appeared that Mark James came dangerously close to dipping into his slush fund shortly before he retired following comments from the former Chair of ABMU health board. The comments, incidentally, were entirely accurate.

It is clear to me that throughout my (long running) correspondence with Ms Rees Jones (who was also a personal witness for Mr James during the trial) that her confidence in her own argument is non-existent, otherwise the clause would have been back in by now. I expect this will be further borne out at the CRWG meeting and I predict the 'recommendation' will be to leave the clause in permanent suspension.

I've asked for copies of the paperwork in relation to this item ahead of next week's meeting. I doubt if they will be forthcoming. Unfortunately Plaid, and legal Linda, have resisted calls for CRWG to be made a fully constituted committee which would, in principle at least, mean it was held in public and papers published beforehand.

Given the council's predisposition to secrecy over this whole business it's taken numerous FOIs, reviews, appeals, and even the ICO etc to extract the various minutes, reports and letters from the clutches of County Hall.

The secretive CRWG was set up after the unlawful payments scandal, firmly under the control of Mark James, who was the guilty party in pocketing the illegal payments in the first place.

The council's own Audit Committee could have taken on the job but this would have meant unwelcome public scrutiny, and the unpredictability of lay members. The lay member at the time was former eminent lawyer Sir David Lewis who described the internal legal advice surrounding the whole scandal as 'cavalier' and 'incompetent'. Sadly it's still the same.
So you can understand why Mr James and legal Linda didn't want the Audit Committee involved...

Anyway, presuming the meeting does go ahead, and it's already been postponed once from April, I'll report on the outcome as soon as I hear anything.


The mysterious exempt item on the Wellness Village, or Pentre Awel as it's now known, at last Monday's Executive Board meeting was to seek approval for the Business Case. You might have thought that given the scandals, and the extortionate amount of public money involved it might have been discussed in public.

The minutes show that as the 'academic partners' have yet to sign the 'Memorandum of Understanding' (nonsense jargon for 'not legally binding'...) they couldn't possible reveal the business case to the public.
We know that Swansea University were involved in the Wellness Village but pulled out when the scandal broke, so whether they are now happy with revised plans and are signing up again remains to be seen, or maybe another University has been collared into it.

Whatever the case, and there's no sign of any private partners stumping up the £120m yet. 
The business case will eventually appear at a City Deal Joint Committee meeting, possibly early next month.

As far as I know, and I've heard nothing to the contrary, the bribery investigation relating to the Welness Village is still ongoing. In case you need reminding, search warrants were executed by the regional organised crime squad at several addresses in July 2019, including the homes of Mark James, former Leader Meryl Gravell, and County Hall, Carmarthen.


PS. Buried deep within the Council's Annual Report, on the agenda for the next Executive Board meeting, is the national survey results. It turns out that only 9% of people agree that they have 'an opportunity to participate in making decisions about the running of local authority services'. The previous tally was already a disappointing 11%, but the new, abysmal figure puts Carmarthenshire Council 21st, out of 22 local authorities.

Friday, 11 September 2020

Emlyn's Hot Tub

Several people have contacted me after noticing Plaid Council Leader Emlyn Dole's purpose built holiday home, complete with hot tub advertised on Airbnb, etc. There's nothing like a quiet Welsh getaway in the middle of a pandemic of course, presumably there's plenty of bookings from far afield!

The story behind this lucrative little earner down on Fferm Capel Ifan, Pontyberem, was a typical Carmarthenshire tale of shady nonsense, earning him the title Emlyn 'two barns' Dole, and the usual media quote, a la Mark James, that he'd 'done nothing wrong'. As is usual in these circumstances, the planning applications were all in his wife's name.

Cllr Dole, BBC Wales

Planning was originally granted in 2012 to sympathetically convert the historic 400 year old barns into a tanning salon and holiday lets. However, the 'conversion' went a bit further than was allowed, in fact it went from this;

to this;

Planning enforcement stepped in and eventually, in 2015 as there was bugger all left of the historic barns, new applications had to be made. There was even an unpleasant question mark over the Mr Dole's re-use of the original 2012 Agent's report. The original agent was, in fact, no longer acting for him and was quoted as saying;
"Judging by the evidence, it appears Emlyn Dole is not playing the game everyone else in the county has to play, which is going through due process".

As this was now a new build in open countryside, planning officers recommended refusal. 
Meanwhile Emlyn carried on with the, er, 'conversion', without the proper planning approval, flagrantly ignoring planning rules. It was now a retrospective planning application.

Not to be outdone by pesky planning officers in his own authority, and by now, enjoying his position as leader thanks to Mark James, the application found it's way to the Planning Committee. The dutiful Committee kindly made not just one, but two trips to see the crumbling heap on the deeply un-material planning basis that it had been 'in the press' and the 'sensitive' identity of the applicant.

Eventually, enough backs were scratched on the charabanc trips to Pontyberem to ensure it was passed by a majority, against the recommendation of Emlyn's own authority's planning department. Mark James ensured Dole escaped from the fiasco unscathed, in return for a few favours and u-turns as Leader. Most crucially by declaring his new-found support for illegal libel indemnities. It's how things work.

So there we are, 'Y Beudy Bach' has even got it's own shed with a hot tub, not sure if planning was required for that as well but what the heck, there's got to be some perks as leader! Trebles all round, as Private Eye would say!


For those losing sleep over whether former chief executive Mark James is struggling to make ends meet, what with the police investigation and all that, scratching by on his pensions and Caebrwyn's monthly gutter money, worry no more. Not only are his companies, Cardiff business interests, (undeclared when he was in post) and property portfolio (including mine), flourishing, but his new consultancy business, of which he has the controlling interest, is showing a relatively healthy balance sheet with £70k in profit, well profit he has declared anyway. 
Not bad considering Ffynnon Consultancy is in its infancy, has no website, contact details or, well, anything. 

Still, with the contacts made during his County Hall dictatorship and the inside knowledge of everything from the City Deal, pilfering public funds, to tax avoidance, he doesn't need to advertise. 
One can only speculate what they're paying him for.  

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Flying the flag

Monday's Executive Board agenda (7th Sept) is resplendent with a new flag flying policy, the snappily titled 'Equality Promotion Calendar and Flag & Illumination Protocol'. Not perhaps the greatest of priorities at the moment but it is in fact a culmination of council wrangling and nonsense over the flying of flags which has gone on for several years, a controversy stemming from the former chief executive's flat refusal to fly the Rainbow Flag. 

The new protocol, whilst welcome, does no more than bring County Hall into the present day and in line with other public organisations who have happily flown flags as a gesture of support towards diversity, inclusiveness and other causes and groups, with minimal regulation and no problems.

The saga began early in 2015 with requests to the council to fly the Rainbow Flag. The requests were refused as apparently it breached protocol. Some concluded it was nothing to do with 'protocol' but more to do with Mr James' evangelical Christian beliefs. And given his generosity with £1.5m public money to fund an evangelical bowling alley, but not fly a flag, it's a reasonable assumption that his real problem was with what the rainbow flag represented...  
Of course, senior officials must always be careful not to conflate personal prejudices with the formulation of public policy... 
Meanwhile flags continued to be flown for the birthday of Prince Andrew etc. Presumably in honour of the chief executive's CBE... 

In fact, there wasn't even a protocol in place. That particular policy wasn't 'adopted' (by Emlyn and Mark in a cupboard somewhere) until July 2015, shortly after Mark James anointed him 'Leader'. Apparently it became necessary to formulate the policy after a 'deluge' of, it turned out, just two formal requests. 

The saga drifted on for several years. More refusals in 2016. Further calls, by the Labour group to amend the policy late in 2017 were referred by the Rev Emlyn Dole to CRWG, the notorious constitutional review group where Plaid and the independents have a majority vote and with the then CEO and Legal Linda invigilating. 
The result of that time consuming episode was that there was to be no change to the policy, still no rainbow flags, or any other flags.
The fact that they were open to legal challenge under the Equality Act 2010 seemed to have passed them by.

In the end social media pressure and a growing media image of Carmarthenshire being the 'most homophobic council in Wales' ensured that the Rainbow Flag was forcibly removed from the chief executive's clutches and enjoyed the occasional flutter.

One might confidently conclude that it was the eventual and long awaited departure of the, erm, devout Mark James which has led to the new policy and annual programme of flag flying. 
Incidentally, unlike Mark and Emlyn's 2015 policy, it gives preference (by height etc) to the Welsh Flag over the Union flag, and not the other way round.

I'm considering requesting a flag flying date to commemorate the honour bestowed to the former chief executive by Private Eye as Shit of the Year 2016. I guess a pirate flag will do.


On the subject of CRWG the global pandemic has provided, unintentionally of course, a means to block further discussion of the Auditor General Wales' communications concerning the illegal libel indemnity clause. Unlike the flag business, this saga is far from over.

To recap, in July 2018 Emlyn and Co, aka Mark James and Linda Rees Jones, resolved that the clause should be reinstated, and, remarkably, Emlyn also wanted the indemnity extended to himself and other senior councillors. They decided, however, that they'd better write to the Auditor General to ensure he had changed his view from 2014, and would now be in complete support of using public cash to sue critics of the regime. 

I need not remind you that Mark James had availed himself of the public purse to do just that in 2012. He has never repaid the money. Nor, for that matter, the tax avoidance cash he also pocketed.

Unfortunately for the dynamic duo the Auditor General hadn't changed his mind at all and even threatened judicial challenge should the council try this again.

Mark and Linda meanwhile were having none of it and pestered the AG again, and, with the timely retirement of Mr James in June 2019, let alone having his house raided by the police the following month, Ms Rees Jones continues to carry on protecting his back and defending his illegal behaviour. 
I suspect, without the blessing of the AG, she'll have to advise that's the clause is kept in perpetual suspended animation, as a lasting memorial to the chief executive's idiotic hubris.

The AG's response was to be discussed by CRWG in April but was obviously shelved, I've asked Ms Rees Jones if a new date has been set but no reply has been forthcoming yet. 
The ongoing issue of libel indemnities has seen a growth of long grass which must be a world record for any local authority, even this one.

I have also mentioned that with the severe financial pressures due to Covid looming, surely the time has come to remove this chilling and potentially bank-busting clause and finally admit that both she, and her former boss have been deliberately misleading councillors, and lying to the high court, and anyone else who might enquire about the CEO's unique slush fund, for the past eight years.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Grillo site - the toxic saga

The notorious Grillo site at Burry Port cropped up again a few weeks ago in the form of a mysterious exempt item on the Executive Board agenda. The couple of hectares, by the harbour, was once the site of a Zinc Oxide factory owned by Grillo but, demolished in 2007, it has formed part of the Council's 'Masterplan' for the area ever since.
Unfortunately the site was, and still is heavily contaminated with highly toxic unpleasantness which may produce some interestingly flavoured veg should future residents of the planned 230 houses do a bit of gardening. The lethal and widespread cocktail of heavy metals, organic compounds and hydrocarbons not only needs to be removed but carefully transported and dumped elsewhere. It's also liable to flooding, it's part of the creaking Llanelli sewage system, and seeps regularly into the harbour and the highly protected Burry Port inlet.

Nearby, another council led housing development at the Gwdig Estate is slowly washing itself down the mountain onto the road below, propped up by £5m worth of 'landscaping'.
Who is going to buy all these houses is anyone's guess but there you go, that's another story. As for the harbour itself, boats still sit at uncomfortable angles on a bed of silt and sand and the new owners, Marine Group Ltd have yet to transform it from gloopy mud to a promised vision of basking yachts a la Monte Carlo. Tesco withdrew plans to build a store nearby several years ago.

Pic source; BBC

Aside from all that, the Grillo site is undoubtedly a bit of an eyesore. As with many developments emanating from County Hall, a more sensible, and cheaper option might have been to clean it up (and not just the usual Carmarthenshire Council solution of sprinkling a few inches of topsoil on top, Wellness-style) and provide a pleasant landscaped wildlife haven to complement the, erm, exciting potential harbourside developments. 
But this is County Hall and, at the time, the Masterplan was a Mark James thing, which inevitably meant it was all a bit odd, bit like the Wellness thing.

The Grillo site was bought, at some point in the past, by shell company Castletown Estates Ltd. The purpose of the purchase was, presumably, to secure planning permission, grab a few public grants to clean it up, and flog it on to developers. The Director of Castletown Estates Ltd is Tory peer, and merchant banker Lord George Magan, his wikipedia entry suggests he's something of a colourful character. Magan donated £1.4m to the Conservative party in 2011 and was subsequently made a life peer by David Cameron in 2011. He also acquired a suspended sentence a couple of years ago for some 'creative' accounting.

Most people trying to secure speculative planning permission are usually left to their own devices (apart from some who have benefited from some very dodgy grants to help them along), but in this case Mark James bent over backwards to assist Lord Magan with his Burry Port plans.

Naturally, under pressure from Mr James, the council itself approved the plan but given that it was on a C2 flood plain it was called-in by the Welsh Government who promptly said no chance.
Undaunted, Mark James took the next step, without consulting councillors and in 2013 the council went off to court with Castletown Estates to fight the Welsh Government, and lost.
Move forward a year or two and after some tweaking of the flood maps, permission was finally granted for Lord Magan and co in 2015. The affordable housing element was slashed due to the cost of remedial works, those heavy metals had their use after all.

The Masterplan, meanwhile has lain dormant. In December 2018 it became apparent that Casteltown Estates had no interest in cleaning up the site, or more likely, no developers wanted to touch it with a barge pole. Step forward Mark James, now aided by Emlyn Dole, who announced that after pandering, financially, to Magan and co for several years, they were going to buy the site for two million quid, and 'get things done', or GET THINGS DONE.
'Getting things done' appears to have been to extend the planning permission for another three years, in yet another joint application with Castletown Estates. No remedial works have been carried out to date, by the council or anyone.

So after this complex and long running saga, noted for the curious relationship between Mark James and Castletown Estates, and not forgetting his heir apparent, Director of Regeneration, trusty deputy and now CEO, Wendy Walters, the Grillo item reappeared earlier this month.

It turns out that the 2018 purchase never went through. It was, apparently, dependent on various planning niceties and reports, it's not clear quite what, nor why the council had to fork out even more cash to help Castletown boost their profits before the sale was finally agreed. Last month's decision was, in the depths of a global pandemic and economic crash, to finally buy the site. This time, however, the price was withheld. Was it more? Or less? I have made enquiries for this elusive figure and await a FOI response. It would also be interesting to know who exactly they are paying the money to.

(Update; FOI; the council will be paying Castletown Estates £1.5m for the site and have spent £15k on planning applications since 2018. They wouldn't reveal the estimates remedial work costs due to 'commercial sensitivity'...)

The council are attempting to attract developers and intend to sell the site on but with the price unknown, the remedial work said to cost in excess of £10m, I'll be surprised if there are many takers, there's been no one so far for the past fifteen years. But there you go, with the combination of a colourful Tory peer and Mark James' penchant for helping himself to council funds the whole saga is contaminated in more ways than one, and whatever the costs of this toxic plan, and with the council nearly half a billion in debt already, I really hope it won't be the unsuspecting taxpayers of Carmarthenshire footing the bill, again. 

For further background please use the search term 'Grillo' on this blog, and see also several previous posts from Sian Caiach and Cneifiwr  

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Century Wharf, an invoice, and Mark James, again...

Good piece over on Jac o'the North's latest blog post on former Carmarthenshire chief executive and Private Eye's Shit of the Year 2016, Mark James, do have a read.

Jac provides a brief summary of some of the highlights of the dictator's reign at the council and, of course, his 'interests' elsewhere, none of which he bothered to declare when running the council.

You'll recall his failure to declare bugger all when being illegally bankrolled by the taxpayer for his legal fees, or his shadowy involvement in the now torpedoed Kuwait venture, or his companies in Cardiff, or his property portfolio, which I narrowly avoid joining every month by scratching together the 'gutter money' to put in his wallet...

Anyway, Jac focuses again on Mr James' property management dealings in Cardiff at the Century Wharf development. You may recall various posts from a couple of years ago. It seems that some residents are still taking a very close look at our Mr James, and so they should, and it's not an easy task as he abolished AGMs for the Right To Manage company he runs shortly after taking control. No surprises there.

They were, however, surprised to see that their phone services were provided by an unknown company in far-flung Llangennech called ETS Ltd. A brief look at Companies House shows us that, according to the last accounts, it was barely functioning, and, as Jac points out, there's a puzzling issue over the VAT registration number (see also the interesting comment from 'Brychan') All a bit odd until you see who runs ETS, it's one of Mr James' old friends, Mr Robert Lovering.
It's such a small world...

Going back a few years, around 2009, the MOD were selling their old site in Llangennech. Just before it went to auction Mr James decided to help out his friends Lovering and business partner and rugby bloke David Pickering by arranging for the council (never a problem for Mr James) to snap it up, and immediately selling it on to the businessmen.
Councillors were not told who was benefiting from this deal, only that they needn't worry as they were 'known to officers'. They certainly were.

He not only made sure they had a great bargain but then arranged a £281,000 grant to refurbish a couple of the buildings. My most recent post on the subject was in 2017 here. Cneifiwr's detailed piece from 2014 is here.

I guess if you wield power through intimidation and threats, and abolish all pretence at democracy, whether in business or public service, you can make these little arrangements, or, for that matter, destroy your critics.
Another word for it is corruption.

Lovering and Pickering, are also directors of Hydro Industries based in Llangennech, a water tech company. Expenses claim sheets show several unexplained trips made by Mr James to the Llangennech offices in late 2017 early 2018, a few weeks before both him and Marc Clement were publicly welcoming the company to the, erm, 'opportunities' presented by the City Deal and the Wellness Village...

The curious generosity shown by Mr James to another rugby entity, Scarlets Regional Ltd, is well documented on this blog.and one incident in particular is worth repeating as it shows just one example of what he was, and is, capable of if any of those Century Wharf residents happen to land on this blog. For the avoidance of doubt one could also add lying to the council, the court, the police and the press to his extensive portfolio.

To cut a long story short, with mounting debts, the rugby club wanted to sell a 'surplus' car park to Marstons Inns but Scarlets Regional Ltd were leaseholders, the council owned the land.

The recommendation, from the Council's former Director of Finance was, in no uncertain terms, for a 50/50 split of the £850,000 proceeds, possibly even erring in favour of the council.

Mr James was having none of it. His rugby business cronies had a third party debt that needed repaying and he was determined to help them out. At the last minute he made damn sure the company had an extra £200k out of the deal, shamelessly shortchanging the taxpayer.

Incidentally I finally got to the bottom of this crooked deal when Mr James was on 'gardening leave' during his previous encounter with plod in 2014. Possibly thinking that he wasn't coming back, the council released, under FOI, some very interesting emails which set out this sorry saga and the contempt James had for close colleagues, let alone the public.

Century Wharf residents, or even anyone thinking of using the services of Ffynnon Consultancy, might want to go even further back and read what he got up to in Boston... It might help explain his modus operandi.
He also quietly changed the council's Constitution to illegally use public money to sue for libel, establishing his very own slush fund, something the residents may want to watch out for...

The Century Wharf residents who complained a couple of years ago, and committed the gravest of sins by not only criticising him but contacting the press to boot, were described by the charming Mr James as a 'cancer'. Funnily enough, one of their concerns at the time, apart from the vomit in the corridors, was the bullying tactics of Mr James as Chair of the Board to silence dissent, and the suspicion he was creating his own companies, or through his acquaintances, to benefit from work at Century Wharf.

If anyone riddled Carmarthenshire Council with disease and corruption it was Mr James himself, and extended it to everything he touched, the legal department, recruitment and press office in particular spring to mind.
The City Deal, and particularity the Wellness scandal and the shady Kuwait deal were his parting shots. The sorry saga is documented throughout this blog, including using his own personal lawyers, Acuity Law, to 'clear' his and the council tracks.
He'd already trashed the reputation of the council with his illegal indemnity and tax avoidance scandals and this was the icing on the cake.

Left; Prof Marc Clement, sacked for gross misconduct, and Right; Mark James, raided by the police over the Wellness scandal
He nearly brought the Deal to its knees by attempting to extend his dictatorship, through plain old dishonesty and self-interest to a bigger, and possibly wiser audience who, in the end, were having none of it.
I have no doubt that the only pockets Mark James was interested in was his own, and those of his like-minded friends. As we know, thanks to the determination of Swansea University, and no thanks to the impotence of carmarthenshire council, the police became involved in the Wellness scandal, with raids last year on several homes, including that of Mr James. County Hall was also searched, for deleted data.
As far as I know, the criminal investigation continues.

Mr James managed to control Carmarthenshire Council through fear, dishonesty and manipulation, to the extent that they allowed this crook, and thoroughly nasty piece of work to trample on democracy, funnel away precious funds and bully, threaten and terrorise staff and Members for seventeen years.

Century Wharf residents, take note.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

News in brief...and remote meetings underway - updated

The council finally managed to organise a remote Executive Board meeting which was held yesterday, and a full council meeting looks set for the 10th June. Despite the calibre of the attendees, yesterday's gathering appeared to go relatively smoothly.

The archived meeting can be viewed on the council website

The agenda included a brief list of officer decisions from the last few weeks and a short report from the Director of Social Care.
The meeting lasted about half an hour and according to the chief executive, decisions will now be taken democratically rather than by officers alone..or what passes for democracy here anyway...
Despite two months of lockdown and such a radical change to everyone's life there were no questions tabled from non-executive nor opposition councillors  - one doesn't expect robust debate at this time, nor unhelpful political posturing but mild curiosity as to present and future plans may have been in order, for the benefit of residents. Maybe next week.

Incidentally I noticed the viewing figures hovered around 25, if you discount me and a couple of reporters, and all those present, on and offline, it doesn't leave many more. So unless there is a different way of observing the meeting (and I'm happy to be corrected) it's unclear whether any of the remaining 65 or so councillors bothered tuning in.

There was the obligatory thanks to the management, once Emlyn Dole had remembered, and of course well-deserved thank you to frontline council staff, although an offer of a decent pay rise would be a little more helpful.

Unless the council is guilty of some sort of glaring cock-up over its response to the ongoing pandemic, which we don't know about yet, and given that they're acting largely from government directives, this blog is, of course, concerned with other matters. However, the top brass of local authorities will come under the spotlight of scrutiny at some point; as we have seen with the valiant and often fruitless attempts by the press to hold Welsh and UK governments to account on a daily basis. This is a very difficult, and fast moving time but local decisions are equally important, as is full transparency.

With regards to track and trace, which started on 1st June, it is understood that as of the 28th May only the Infection Control Manager has been appointed, the council has yet to arrange the redeployment of 100 staff to track and trace. The council have also refused, so far, to offer face masks to highways staff who are concerned about the risk of infection in, for example, the cab of a lorry.

Despite the financial impact to the council due to the virus, £11.4m in extra costs and lost income and rising, I did note that they'd managed to spend £150k on surveys for 'Pentre Awel City Deal', this refers to the scandal-ridden Wellness Village. The surveys perhaps relate to the families of otters inconveniently residing on this 'prime location', or the depths of the toxic contamination, something like that, there was little detail.

You may recall that due to the "negative" (ie 'honest) coverage of the scandal project, a £25k+ 'rebrand' was commissioned in the hope that potential investors would be muddled into thinking this was an entirely different thing, so the Wellness Village has now, it seems, become 'Pentre Awel'.
It needs a rethink not a rebrand.
I asked the City Deal twitter account if any new 'partners' had actually signed up to the Wellness Village yet. There was no reply.

Incidentally the 'Mixed market/social housing' plan for the project has now been replaced with 'Executive housing development with an element of affordable housing', an interesting shift of emphasis.

What no one needs right now, or in the years to come, apart perhaps from the council's friends and favourite consultancy firms, is a speculative project mired in controversy hoping to tap into global wellness tourism and private healthcare on the Llanelli Riviera.

I have said much about this vanity project and the associated scandal on this blog and indeed, the criminal investigation into suspected bribery continues following the search warrants executed last year.

Back in April the former Vice Chancellor of Swansea University Richard Davies had his appeal against dismissal for gross misconduct rejected. Professor Marc Clement's appeal was rejected earlier this year. Employment tribunals have been stayed until after the police investigation.
This all relates to the City Deal Wellness Village scandal in Llanelli, and the private hospital scandal in Kuwait, and all involve the former chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council.
There is extensive background on this blog, going back a number of years, and my most recent significant post on the subject was in February, here.

The 'Wellness deal' 2018 currently under police investigation.
L to R; Phyllis Dickmann, Mark James, Ex-V C Richard Davies, Emlyn Dole, Franz Dickmann, Prof Marc Clement

Whether Hywel Dda Health Board are still as enthusiastic about 'partnering' the scheme seems unlikely, they were never keen about ploughing money into it in the first place. Not that they had any, and neither does the council.

The Health Board has a very different set of priorities now and so should the council, the latter already owes £413m without the requirement to borrow more £mms upfront for this bizarre scheme, or counting the cost of the pandemic (for which another £20m was borrowed by the finance chief..and let's hope that's not squiffed elsewhere) which will play out for years to come. Years of borrowing to fund Mark James' various vanity projects are already costing the taxpayer £20m a year in interest.

In other news, Jonathan Edwards MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr may was arrested at his home for suspicion of assault a couple of weeks ago. He has been suspended from Plaid Cymru pending the outcome of the investigation, but will still sit as an independent. The BBC reported the incident here.

Towards the end of April the thorny issue of libel indemnities was due to be discussed by 'CRWG'. I have to assume that this meeting was cancelled. Why it's even being discussed and not knocked out of the field is staggering. But in order to carry on protecting the former chief executive and his chief legal defender, Linda Rees Jones, the charade continues; it's continued for six years now ever since the offending clause was 'suspended' after the WAO declared Mark James' taxpayer funded indemnity unlawful.
I will of course be returning to that entire issue in due course.
The fight goes on...

Update 3rd June;
The agenda for next week's remote Council AGM has been published and consists of the usual divvying up of a couple of lucrative Committee Chairs and the apparently urgent requirement for all councillors to have their allotted pay rise. Business as usual.
In fact, Covid-19 has served a useful purpose in limiting the Annual Tweaking of the Constitution to this pay rise and nothing else, such as the removal of awkward libel clauses.  The dire spectacle of Emlyn Dole's annual Leader's report is also something to look forward to...with a mention, no doubt, that the very exciting Wellness Thing (or Pentre Awel Thing) is imminent, as it has been for the past four years.
We can also look forward to Chairman Kevin Madge's farewell mumble but, thankfully, this time we'll be spared the emotional exchange of the glittering chains of office.
If any councillors do manage to muster up a vaguely searching question on the day (none have been tabled), about pandemics or otherwise, these will, of course, be treated as an attack rather than scrutiny.

Update 10th June;
The AGM was no different to usual, (apart from it being remote), consisting mainly of a lengthy round of virtual back-slapping and jolly Chain-swapping between veteran councillors.

The 'voting' for the new Chair and Vice Chair was, as usual, completely superfluous, even more so this time as the Civic Regalia had already been delivered to the new recipients...
Interesting that they have no time to respond to FOI requests yet can arrange delivery of the County Hall bling across the county.

Same bland nonsense accompanied the Leader's Annual Report, although opposition leader Rob James did suggest that some of the capital projects might need revisiting, maybe he had the Wellness Thing (oops, 'Pentre Awel') in mind...he was also the only one, I believe, to express his condolences to the family and friends of those who had died from the virus.

Personally I was astonished that the Reverend Dole's Annual Report forgot to mention the significant events of last July which saw County Hall, and the homes of the former CEO Mark James, and former leader Meryl Gravell raided by the organised crime squad.
Must have slipped his mind.

Monday, 16 March 2020

Homelessness grant failure, and CRWG to discuss the unlawful libel clause

As this blog has reported over the years the council's management of grants has often left a lot to be desired. Back in 2015, internal audit exposed a catalogue of failure in delivering the Supporting People grant and despite lessons apparently having been learnt, it seems that things have hardly improved.

An internal audit report for next Friday's Audit committee shows a similar catalogues of failure in administering and delivering the Homelessness Prevention Grant. The grant for 2018/19 was for £170,000.

Out of the samples tested (which suggest the true picture could well be worse) documentation was incomplete or missing, there were no document 'checklists' and signed claim forms were non-existent and, furthermore, the accounts didn't add up properly.
The ordering of goods was sometimes deemed inappropriate and non-compliant with the council's Financial Procedure Rules

A 'fundamental weakness' was identified (again this was only through sampling of two invoices ) where a total of £18,000 had been spent on carpets and furniture through the 'Home Ready Furniture Scheme'.
The clients name, the description of items, the details of actual goods delivered were all missing from the invoices and no one had any idea what had been delivered to what address.
No one could even verify whether the purchases were within the eligibility period.

Additionally, there was a failure to comply with the council's Contract Procurement Rules as there was no evidence that suppliers had been through the proper evaluation and award process (value for money).

A 'fundamental weakness' in general audit terms indicates a 'high risk of fraud and negligence', so we can only hope that the right people ended up with £18,000 worth of new furniture and carpets...

Naturally, the Audit Committee are being told that everything is now fine, urgent action was taken, and lessons have been learned....until the next time anyway.


In the long running saga of unlawful libel indemnity clauses, the head of legal/Monitoring Officer Linda Rees Jones informs me that the next meeting of CRWG (Constitutional Review Working Group) will be on the 23rd April, (virus permitting).

I have been enquiring as to when she was going to allow elected members to discuss the Auditor General's rejection of the attempts by Mark James, Emlyn Dole and herself, to reinstate the offending clause almost two years ago. 
As regular readers will know, the illegal clause has been 'suspended' for the past six years but, dangerously, not removed completely.
I am presuming that the 23rd April will be the date of discussion.

As CRWG is not a constituted committee its meetings are, conveniently, held behind closed doors and the agendas and reports are not published. It makes 'recommendations' to the Executive Board. 

I have asked Ms Rees Jones (a big fan of libel indemnities and an even bigger fan of disgraced former CEO Mark James) for copies of the papers in advance of the meeting. I somehow doubt that such transparency will be forthcoming.

Either they will finally see sense and remove the provision to sue completely, or leave it in its ridiculous state of suspension, or reinstate. 
The latter would require a decision of full council so unless they have the stomach for illegally diverting funds from public services to silence critics again, I doubt that would happen. Though you never know...Ms Rees Jones seems to think a slush fund is great idea, as of course did Mr James...

This saga follows on from the illegal libel indemnity pocketed by Mr James in 2012. The more recent developments (aside from Emlyn Dole's refusal to ask James to repay the money, and the tax avoidance cash before he retired) follow on from the CRWG meeting held in July 2018;

August 2018 Unlawful libel indemnity clause - part two
February 2019 CRWG minutes - let's sue everyone
August 2019 Libel indemnities - Auditor General says NO
December 2019 Libel indemnities - Auditor General says NO again

PS. The organised crime squad investigation into alleged bribery surrounding the Wellness scandal continues and the police are still examining the documents and equipment seized on the 31st July. Given that the homes of Mark James, Meryl Gravell and County Hall were included in the search warrants I will update this blog as soon as I hear more. And provide comment, whatever the outcome.

Update 18th March; All council meetings have been suspended for the foreseeable future apart from the Executive Board.
As there will be no scrutiny meetings and therefore no scrutiny of executive/officer decisions, we'll have to trust that nothing untoward slips under the democratic radar.
There was precious little scrutiny to start with.

All schools will close on Friday 20th March.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Inappropriate comments and musical Chairs

The crass and insensitive remarks made by Labour Cllr Kevin Madge over an application for a care home to house three vulnerable children serves as a reminder of the calibre of some of our elected members.

According to Cllr Madge, who opposed the application, "They are not normal children so there will be a lot of screaming going on"

Kevin Madge

The inevitable outcry ensued followed by an 'apology'; "It was poor choice of words, which I regret however I have genuine concerns which is what I wanted to get across at the meeting. I will not be making any further comment on this matter.", a statement concocted for poor Kev by the County Hall Department for Non-Apologies.

He made the remarks as a member of the Planning Committee and clearly Cllr Madge's understanding of what constitutes a material planning consideration leaves much to be desired, let alone his attitude towards vulnerable children.
If this wasn't bad enough, it is also Cllr Madge's turn to be Chair of Carmarthenshire Council.

He graced this week's meeting of full council by sharing the sad news that one of his favourite hens had died that morning. It was all the rain, he said, something to do with climate change, he thought.

Still, at least he cares about his vulnerable hens.

It was my observations at council meetings, of the sometimes bizarre and often ignorant comments from some elected members which prompted me to campaign for webcasting and filming. Sometimes I wish I hadn't, I almost feel embarrassed for them sometimes...

The Chair of the Council is a position which is supposed to command respect. It is not a political role, unlike the Leader, and the Chair spends his or her year visiting school events, 100th birthdays, a charity bash or two, and generally being ferried around in a chauffeur driven car, fully chained, being the 'Face of the Council'.

You would think that it would be sensible to ensure that the Chair has some sort of ability for the role and is selected, and, more importantly, elected, by the full council. Unfortunately this isn't the case. Each political group takes it in turns each to propose the Chair, and the Vice Chair, with a superfluous show of hands. The latter, as night follows day, always becomes Chair the following year.

Ability for the role doesn't come into it, some are better than others but this is simply by chance rather than design, as is so apparent in this instance. This particular idiot saw the honour as the pinnacle of his political career. Probably a bit higher up the greasy pole than his lengthy and catastrophic involvement in Mark James' unlawful payments fiasco mind you.
As the then Labour Leader of the Council, it was an unedifying spectacle watching Madge try and justify Mr James' tax avoidance scam, let alone the plundering of public cash to sue, which he endorsed.

Kevin Madge 2014
In all seriousness there are several flaws with this archaic arrangement. For one, an unaffiliated independent councillor (not part of the 'Independent Group') would never become Chair, however adept they might be.

Secondly, it is seen as a reward for good behaviour. Councillors from any group who choose to rock the County Hall boat are unlikely ever to be sporting the polished Chains of Office.

Thirdly, it gives the chief executive full control over full council meetings, prompting and 'advising' the chair to such a degree you can almost see the former's hand moving the latter's mouth. A particular problem when the chief executive happens to be a psychotic control freak.

This was painfully evident of course during the tenure of the former chief executive. A read back through the council reports on this blog will highlight some fine examples. Painful might also be the operative word and it is said that one former Chair recalled Mr James kicking her shins when a more outspoken councillor had the floor, and patting her leg when she had successfully silenced the dissenting voice to his satisfaction.

Not sure if the male Chairs enjoyed such attention, or whether new CEO Wendy Walters deploys the same tactic on the legs of Kevin Madge...

As we are now in the 21st century and the council is supposed to be at the cutting edge of modern democracy is it now time to end this merry-go-round of musical Chairs? Select and elect candidates on ability and merit? Or even scrap the ceremonial role, with it's chauffeur driven trips to Civic Teas and Services the length and breadth of Wales, completely?

WalesOnline; Councillor apologises after calling care home kids 'not normal' 

Friday, 7 February 2020

Wellness scandal - Swansea University statement - sticking to its guns

Swansea University have released a little more detail and background to the sackings and disciplinary proceedings relating to the Wellness village/Kuwait scandal.

As the police investigation into alleged bribery and corruption is ongoing, and employment tribunals are on the horizon there is still little flesh on the bones. However, despite the continued denials by some of those involved, the university remains steadfast in its position and no doubt the full story will emerge eventually.

As for the police investigation, the regional organised crime squad, Tarian, have issued the following statement via South Wales Police;
"Eight people have been interviewed as suspects, all of whom remain under investigation. Further enquiries as part of this complex investigation are ongoing. Extensive examination of a significant number of seized documents and electronic equipment also continues."

You will recall that documents and electronic equipment were not just seized from the university staff, and a certain address in Kent, but also from the homes of former CEO Mark James and former council leader Meryl Gravell, and from the server room at County Hall.

Here's the University's statement, from a report by WalesOnline;

"As there have previously been inaccurate reports regarding these serious matters, the university is issuing this brief statement.

"In September 2018, the university investigated a payment that had been made to Raymond Ciborowski (the university’s former registrar) upon the termination of his employment.

"This investigation found that the agreement governing the termination of Raymond Ciborowski’s employment as registrar contained irregular and inappropriate provisions.

"After these findings were presented to Raymond Ciborowski on 27 September 2018, he resigned from his part-time position with the University as a special adviser.

"Following his resignation, further evidence was discovered that indicated Raymond Ciborowski and other employees of the university had significant undeclared interests and stood to make financial gains in a personal capacity from the university’s participation in commercial projects with which they were involved as university employees.

"These gains included salaries from future appointments and equity potentially worth millions of pounds. The evidence suggested that there were material and serious interests that should have been declared under the university’s policies and procedures.

"As a result of these discoveries, the university informed its auditors and instructed expert external legal advisers to carry out an investigation.

"A leading employment law barrister, with no previous connection to the university, was appointed as investigation manager to conduct a disciplinary investigation.

"Following a thorough investigation, which included multiple interviews with the suspended individuals and the review of a substantial number of documents, the investigation manager delivered a report to the university in May 2019 recommending that there was evidence of gross misconduct."

To add a little more background, an earlier WalesOnline article, dated January 2019 (and covered on this blog) reported that Mr Ciborowski had been offered employment, discounted homes and shares by Kent-based Mr Franz Dickmann. This allegation of, shall we say, inducements, appears to have been made by the now sacked vice-chancellor Richard Davies in a 'leaked' grievance letter.

Obviously, my interest in all this, and the extensive coverage on this blog over the past few years, centres around the involvement in this scandal of former CEO Mark James, or should I say his curious determination to appoint the Dickmann clan. Also of interest is the involvement of the leadership of the Council, and not forgetting the role of the council's notorious legal department led by Linda Rees Jones.

She was stripped of the role of City Deal Monitoring Officer following the damning internal audit last year and of course Mark James hastily retired just as the s**t was beginning to hit the fan. The position of City Deal Lead was subsequently deleted, a convenient and cheaper alternative than sacking him. Carmarthenshire, unsurprisingly, lost the audit and democratic responsibility within the City Deal.
It remains to be seen who else at the council knew more than they've been letting on.

Prior to his retirement Mr James had, without a shred of conscience nor a whisper of a declaration of interest, brought in his own personal solicitors Acuity Law to give the council a 'clean bill of health' over the tender process for the Wellness Village. Everything that had been, shall we say, shady, was, of course perfectly fine, just a little, erm, 'unusual'.
A FOI response last November revealed that their advice over the initial procurement cast further doubt on their claim to have been 'independent'.
However, Mr James' true motive in commissioning Acuity Law was to give himself a pre-emptive defence.

Also prior to his departure was the damning letter from the former City Deal colleague and Chair of the Swansea Bay Health Board, Andrew Davies who accused Mark James of having flagrant disregard to any of the seven Nolan Principles of public life and being, in so many words, a compulsive liar. Though I have to say this wasn't a revelation for many of us...
Mark James's career ended with a flurry of legal threats which, it seems, came to nothing as he'd have had to pay for it out of his own pocket this time, rather than yours.

One of the key characters in this fiasco, along with Mark and Marc, was Franz Dickmann.
It was Dickmann's company, Kent Neurosciences who landed the council's initial, behind-closed-doors 'exclusivity agreement' to develop the Wellness village, clearly on the recommendation, instruction and insistence of Mark James and Marc Clement. This was despite the company having no track record other than the development of a private hospital in Kent which, before the Dickmann's scarpered, required a £20m bail-out.

Kent Neurosciences went pop within a year with a deficit of £128k and the 'agreement' wasn't renewed. However, after an 'robust and extensive' tendering exercise to find a new developer, lo and behold, Sterling Health were appointed, who, surprise surprise, consisted of the Dickmann clan again, this time with Meryl Gravell on the Board.

They were the only bidder and, at the time, were £137k in the red. Not only were they going to develop the site, apparently, but family members in the various companies were lined up to run other aspects of the project, including the management consultancy (Dickmann Jnr) and a private creche.

What was, and remains interesting, was the determination by Mark James to appoint Franz Dickmann's and his companies (all now dissolved) in this key role, not once but twice, despite the obvious lack of evidence that they could deliver. Almost as if he didn't care about that bit, and indeed, some senior council officers were beginning to doubt the viability of Sterling before the University, inconveniently for Mr James, exposed the allegations currently being investigated.

Early last year Mr Dickmann popped up in yet another murky scandal along with our Mr James and his friends at the Uni with the revelations over the proposed private hospital in Kuwait, (see Mark of Arabia here - worth a read for even more background). To keep it all in the family, Mr James had been made a trustee, something he failed to register in his official declaration of interests. Rather like his business empire in Cardiff.
The Kuwait venture was subsequently referred to the authorities, by the University, as part of this whole investigation.

The full details will hopefully emerge in the weeks and months to come, whatever the outcome of the complex police investigation.

L to R; Mrs Dickmann, Mark James, ex V-C Richard Davies,
Emlyn Dole, Franz Dickmann, Marc Clement

PS. Nearly forgot to add that the Rev Dole will be jetting off in March for a four day jolly to the annual MIPIM property show in Cannes. Swansea Council leader Rob Stewart and various City Deal high-rollers are also destined for the French Riviera with the City Deal budget coughing up £10,000.
However, Emlyn's hotel and flights will be paid for by the long suffering taxpayers of Carmarthenshire.
And given this splendid account of the event from a few years back, the Wellness scandal and the ongoing police investigation might just fit right in!

PPS Apparently the MIPIM beano has been postponed due to the coronavirus thing, such a shame Emlyn won't be going just yet...

Aside from the links in this post there is extensive background information on all this, the City Deal and the wellness scandal on this blog, if you wish to search.