Tuesday 21 November 2017

The Mark James Business Empire - Nothing to declare!

After a lengthy three month wrangle with the council, and some nudging from the Information Commissioner's office, I finally had the outcome of my request for Senior Officers' Declarations of Interests. The full details, up to the point where I asked for an internal review, can be seen here.

The review response is quite extraordinary. I did not ask specifically about the chief executive but it seems that without naming names it was his sensitivities that Ms Rees Jones was focusing on. It was unusual that it was her, the ever faithful head of legal ironing, who carried out this particular review...

Incidentally, the letter was dated 16th November but clearly needed approval, and quite possibly a contribution from the, erm, chief executive so I didn't receive it until today, the 21st, via email...and also incidentally, and unlike previous requests, I was not sent the register of interests, redacted or otherwise.

So, back to the response, and despite the fact that the chief executive runs a property management company and is a director of four companies; and aside from the fact that he owns leaseholds on several flats and is also a registered landlord, he has not declared anything.

I am told, in so many words, that this is because it's all based in Cardiff, not under the 'jurisdiction' of Carmarthenshire. An interesting, if flawed concept to say the least.

As an aside, Mr James claimed in the Western Mail that he'd had 'consent' from the authority for his extra-curricular activities down in the Bay. Seems that this consent must have been the usual nod and a wink variety from a dutiful disciple, rather than anything 'official', or something which might have surfaced on an auditor's radar. Here we have the same old problem; Mr James making all the decisions, even about his own role in the council.

The issue is whether there are any potential conflicts of interest and this can be looked at in two ways.

Whilst he is not tending to business in Cardiff or pursuing his hobby of legal posturing, Mr James manages, somehow, to squeeze in a bit of chief executive stuff, for which he's paid handsomely. According to my own sources, and Cneifiwr's recent post, Mr James devotes quite a bit of time to his business dealings and he's rather more hands-on than he's led everyone to believe. If any of this time impinges on his day job then there's a conflict.

Then there's the council's own business, which is overseen and often led by Mr James. For instance, the council are currently planning to establish a separate Housing Company which will involve contracts and business dealings outside of the county, and the authority are also part of the RentSmart register of landlords, a government scheme led by Cardiff Council.
Is there a potential for decisions taken in Carmarthenshire that set precedent to have influence beyond the county's borders?

What if the council takes a position on anti-social behaviour from short term holiday lets - Is it not relevant that the CEO operates in this industry? What guarantees do we have that he will not conduct business within Carmarthenshire? His business partner operates letting and property investment companies which operate across the UK, including Swansea.

The council are also privy to private discussions with national housing and property developers on a regular basis. Mr James is also the lead chief executive of the Swansea City Deal which involves top level discussions with government officials, developers and property management companies.

Of course, we won't even contemplate whether he uses any council facilities, staff or resources to run his Cardiff empire, that would be highly improper...

Then we can look at it from the Cardiff Bay perspective. I was told by a reliable source that Mr James claimed, to them, to be advising Welsh Government ministers on the development of landlord and housing policy. Whether he does or not we don't know, maybe Mr James was just using his position as council chief executive to impress his business associates...

We also know that Mr James business interests have made it into the press with reports of residents' complaints over raucous stag parties, overnight lets and vomit left in the corridors. This delightful scenario directly involves the chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council as Chairman of the Right to Manage company - you might think he was in danger of bringing the authority into disrepute...though he has already done quite enough of that over the years, notwithstanding the vomit.

One thing is unarguable, Mr James has a lot of contacts, in both walks of life, and surely common sense, let alone transparency would dictate that there is the potential here for conflicting interests.

Public perception is everything, so how do the public - who pay Mr James around £700 a day - know he's not using council time, council contacts, inside information on future policy, or anything else, to further his private interests? In short, we don't. And neither do the council. Do we take his word for it? Most definitely not.

The idea that interests 'out of county' are not declared seems total nonsense to me and continues the game of smoke and mirrors which shroud and protect the chief executive. The declaration of officers' interests should be a requirement as it is for councillors, not left to some sort of flimsy voluntary arrangement, wide open to abuse to those who believe they're a law unto themselves...

Furthermore, ICO guidance on the matter doesn't specify whether declared interests are out of county or not, what is of utmost importance is avoiding conflicts of interest, wherever they are, let alone the importance of public trust in our local authorities. Sadly though, neither of these fundamental concepts of the principles of public life appear to trouble Mr James. Ever.

"Many public authorities maintain a register of interests in which senior staff are required to record, for example, business interests, shareholdings, property ownership and other outside interests, such as membership of clubs and societies, that could potentially give rise to a conflict of interests with their position in the authority. 

A public authority may need to record this information in order to monitor any potential conflict of interest, and the scope of the register could include officers below the most senior level who nevertheless make decisions affecting the public or involving the expenditure of public money. 

If this information is requested under FOIA, the public clearly have a legitimate interest in knowing that any potential conflicts are monitored, to ensure that the decisions and actions of officials are not influenced by their private interests. There is a legitimate interest in transparency in order to foster trust in public authorities." (Extract from ICO guidance)

Pic source; WalesOnline


Anonymous said...

Does Mark James have a Code of Conduct?? I have tried to find it but with no success. Another hidden secret.

Anonymous said...

As usual Ms Rees Jones demonstrates her unique take on CCC's constitution
Nowhere in the Officers’ Code of Conduct does it state that work/interests by a paid employee are exempted from declaration if based outside Carmarthenshire but it does state that "Openness in the dissemination of information and decision making should be the norm."
Let's imagine Ms Rees Jones was moonlighting by running a political lobbying company in Cardiff - would she determine that there could be no potential conflict of interest as the business was not based in Carmarthenshire?

caebrwyn wrote: "Seems that this consent must have been the usual nod and a wink variety from a dutiful disciple, rather than anything 'official'"
- the Officers’ Code of Conduct states "Where an employee may desire to undertake work for their personal gain, prior written approval must be obtained ..." this is later emphasized by "FAILURE TO ADHERE TO THE ABOVE RULING WILL CONSTITUTE GROSS MISCONDUCT AND RESULT IN SUMMARY DISMISSAL IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE COUNCIL'S DISCIPLINARY PROCEDURE"

caebrwyn said...

Anon 05:58
Under the Code of Conduct, if the senior officer convinces him/herself that there is no conflict of interest, there is no need to declare anything. This renders it weak and useless, and potentially wide open to abuse.
As far as the Code applies to Mr James, it's not worth the paper it's written on, and not just the section on conflicts of interest either.

caebrwyn said...

Anon 09:33
My FOI asked for copies of written consent, as claimed by Mr James in the Western Mail - clearly it doesn't exist.

Keanjo said...


This makes interesting reading.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps he doesn't know the meaning of "conflict of interests" considering that he apparently sat in on a meeting which, if I remember correctly, was either discussing his pension arrangements or the decision underwrite his legal expenses or, at least, something which he should to which he should not have been privy.

caebrwyn said...

Anon 14:51
Yes it was the libel indemnity, his failure to declare a direct interest let alone leave the meeting was just one of the reasons the WAO declared the indemnity unlawful. It's either ignorance or total arrogance...I believe it's the latter.

Anonymous said...

Another approach may be to submit an FOI request for a record of delegated decisions taken by senior officers. In most councils this information seems to be readily available via the internet and quite rightly so with the potential for conflicts of interest as well as for openness and transparency. However this appears not to be the case for CCC. I eventually found an 'officer decisions' page at http://democracy.carmarthenshire.gov.wales/mgListOfficerDecisions.aspx?bcr=1&BAM=0.
Inputting a date range of 22/11/2002 - 23/11/2017 rather surprisingly reveals "No matching decisions"

Anonymous said...

Its a fact of life we are all answerable to someone - I am lined managed and my line manager is line managed and so forth

CEOs of global companies are answerable to their shareholders and frequently have to answer for their actions

Mark James must be managed by someone - I would say the ruling party in charge Plaid Cymru - they must then be by default happy for him to conduct all these extra activities in his own time - whether as taxpayers we are just are happy is another matter which we can only express at the next election

Great work by yourself to bring these matters to our attention

Wavell said...

Labour just could not be bothered, Plaid simply followed suit.

Nothing will change unless we get responsible Councillors who are prepared to carry out the duties they a elected to do.

Anonymous said...

Under section 9 of the Officers Code of Conduct,

9.1 Employees of Carmarthenshire County Council ate NOT permitted to undertake private work which relates to any matters likely to require consideration or approval by the Council or an employee authorised to act on it's behalf without the prior written consent of the authority through the Assistant Chief Executive People Management & Performance in consultation with the departmental Chief Officer.

9.2 Where an employee may desire to undertake work for their personal gain, prior written approval MUST be obtained from the Assistant Chief Executive People Management & Performance following consultation with the employees own Chief Officer.

9.3 Should the Assistant Chief Executive People Management & Performance and departmental Chief Officer encounter any difficulty in sanctioning such a request, the matter may be referred to the Appeals Committee for determination.


So, where is Mr James' request to Paul Thomas, and where is the 'get out of jail' clause that LRJ would like us to believe that exists.
Councillors, wake up! Surely to God, you haven't all got a broken moral compass. If you can't ask the tough questions, then you shouldn't have stood as a representative of your ward.

In the words of Edmund Burke, 'The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing'.

Jac o' the North, said...

As you suggest, Jacqui, or as the council would have it, James could be running a string of massage parlours staffed by trafficked Vietnamese children, but as long as it's outside Carmarthenshire, then that's OK.

Which is why an indirect and tenuous link with Carmarthenshire intrigues me. I'll try not to overcomplicate it, but as I say, it is intriguing.

James became a director of Century Wharf (Two) RTM Company Ltd on 27 June 2014. He joined the other 2 RTMs (One & Three) 27 November 2014. This establishes his connection with Steven James Corner, who joined all three RTMs 27 November 2014.

Corner, whose only interest is property, then took a bizarre career detour, and strayed quite a distance from his usual stomping ground, by becoming a director, on 20 May 2015, of Curtain Gallery (Wales) Ltd, based at Tir yr Yspyty, a residential area very close to the Loughor bridge, but in Carmarthenshire.

Prior to Corner's arrival the sole director of this soft furnishings company was a Kathleen Bowen, an interior designer. Soon after Corner's arrival the company address moved over the bridge to Gorseinon, which of course is in Swansea. The move was registered in August 2015.

In a Return made to Companies House dated 19 July 2015 we are told that Bowen and Corner each hold two shares in the company. In a Statement of 19 July 2016 we are told that Corner's shares have been transferred to Ms Bowen. Corner ceased to be a director 30 October 2015.

So what exactly did he contribute to a soft furnishings company in his less than six months as a director?

Not a lot apparently, for an application was made to strike off Curtain Gallery (Wales) Ltd in September 2016 and the company was Dissolved before Christmas.

One obvious question is: how did a property whizz kid like Steven James Corner, who knows Wales no further west than Cardiff, get involved in a soft furnishings business in Llanelli?

Another question might be, how did he get to meet Kathleen Bowen? Come to that, who is Kathleen Bowen? Were they perhaps introduced by a third party, one local to Carmarthenshire, perhaps a friend of Ms Bowen?

So many questions.