Sunday 13 October 2019

A quick update - I'm still here!

After being contacted by numerous people wondering if I'd given up writing the blog I thought I'd better add a quick update and confirm that no, I haven't. The brief lull is due to the highly significant matter of the search warrants executed by the organised crime squad on the 31st July, which included, amongst others, the home of Mark James, recently retired chief executive of Carmarthenshire council.
I am waiting for developments regarding this criminal investigation, and rest assured I will comment in full as soon as I can, whatever the outcome.

Meanwhile, various rumours relating to the investigation are circulating locally, but nothing, so far, has been confirmed by the police, despite my requests for an update.

In fact, no one is saying much about anything. A recent FOI to the council asking what exactly they'd spent £65,000 on with Acuity Law in the first six months of this year (and whatever they spent last year), has yet to be answered.

Despite sending polite chasers, the response is now three weeks late. Acuity Law, you will recall, were the lawyers appointed by Mark James to carry out an 'independent' review of the council's tendering process over the Wellness village, they also happen to be Mark James' personal solicitors.... Essentially they provided him with a publicly funded defence, as it was looking like he might be needing one...

In libel indemnity news, I asked the Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones when, or if, elected members had discussed the letter from the Auditor General for Wales received back in May.

The Auditor General's letter was a sound rejection of Legal Linda's lengthy plea, sent on behalf of Mark James, to reinstate his notorious and unlawful libel clause; to use taxpayers' money to sue the public for defamation. A slush fund if you will. The Auditor General also warned her of his powers to launch a Judicial challenge.

She replied to me last week. No, she said, elected members couldn't discuss it as she was still sending begging letters ("still in dialogue" was the official wording) to the Auditor General to try and change his mind. All quite remarkable. Clearly no councillors are going to get a look-in until he's been swayed.

Whatever else, it shows scant disregard that the council is supposed to be a democratic body, and rides roughshod over the right for elected members to discuss such a significant statement from the head of the independent national audit body for Wales; whether she, and the former chief executive like it or not. It's outrageous.

This is the latest attempt, over the past five years, to change the mind of the Wales Audit Office. From 2015 of course, Mark James and legal Linda have also had the backing of Plaid Cymru's Emlyn Dole, the price he paid for leadership. The Rev Dole also wants to extend the unlawful indemnity to himself and fellow councillors.

Either he, legal Linda and the chief finance officer think that the potential risk of massive losses to the taxpayer, and the threat of Judicial challenge is a great idea. After all, silencing dissent is a much higher priority than a few extra primary school teachers or a social worker or two; Or, Linda and Emlyn are still concerned with protecting the back of a very dodgy, dishonest and disreputable former chief executive and his unlawful payments, and indeed Linda herself with her history of profoundly misleading 'advice' on this matter, and plenty of other matters too.

I have also written to the new chief executive, Wendy Walters asking for her own opinion on the libel indemnity. Maybe, I thought, she has a different view to that of her predecessor. She might have thought it anti-democratic, chilling, illegal, imprudent or immoral, even with her sixteen years at County Hall.
Sadly, three weeks later I've yet to receive an acknowledgement, let alone a reply. Unless she chooses to respond soon I must assume the worst and realise that there's no new broom.

Update 15th October; Ms Walters finally replied yesterday and refused to condemn the indemnity as unlawful and has also ignored the strong words from the Auditor General. However, it is interesting that she considers it a matter for politicians, a message she might wish to pass on to Linda Rees Jones;

"In relation to the matter you raise. I don’t  propose to air any views on this type of indemnity as I regard it as being a matter for the politicians. I am aware there is an on-going debate which will come back to the Constitutional Review Working Group in due course where Members will be able to discuss in full."

It was, of course, discussed in full over five years ago and found to be illegal, at which point both Mark James and legal Linda should have been unceremoniously booted out of office.

But back to the criminal investigation and I hope that the eventual outcome is locked doors and keys throw away. But whatever happens I will, with regards to my own case and the continuing crippling financial nightmare, step up the fight for justice and ensure those responsible, retired or not, are held to account.
I'll do whatever it takes.

Watch this space.


Elderly Neil. said...

I am delighted at what I read Jacquie. Your courageous crusade is finally bearing fruit.

caebrwyn said...

@Elderly Neil
I guess we'll have to wait and see what exactly the fruit consists of, other than being rotten.

caebrwyn said...

Fair play to Labour opposition leader Rob James who raised the taboo subject of indemnities at the last full council meeting. His intervention concerned the indemnity clause added to the City Deal Joint Agreement for the new Programme Director and he wanted it removed and clarified given Carmarthenshire's, er, 'experience' on such matters...
He was, predictably, knocked down by Plaid who accused him of acting without the authority of the other City Deal Scrutiny Committee members but, well, once it's said, it's said. He also managed to give the police investigation a quick mention. Good.

Redhead said...

Has the Auditor General been asked to rule on sanctions if the council refuses the advice given?

caebrwyn said...

The sanction would be to launch a judicial review against the council's decision.

Here's the Auditor General's letter again, which was sent to Linda Rees Jones on the 10th May:

"Thank you for your letter of 28th March 2019 in which you ask whether I accept that it is open to local authorities to indemnify their officers to bring defamation proceedings.

"I have reviewed all of the material that you presented and, in addition, taken fresh independent legal advice of my own. After careful consideration of this body of material, I find the legal argument previously described by [redacted] the more convincing. I remain of the opinion, therefore, that it is unlawful for a local authority to indemnify their officers to bring defamation proceedings.

"While I will consider any situation on the facts, I am mindful of the power provided to me by section 36 of the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004 to make a claim for judicial review in respect of decisions that would have an effect on the body's accounts. If the council departs from its previous decision to remove provision for indemnity for defamation proceedings, I request that the Council gives me at least 21 days' notice of any proposal to consider granting an indemnity to a member or officer to bring an action for defamation

Yours sincerely

Adrian Crompton
Auditor General for Wales"

Anonymous said...

I fail to understand why WW says it is a matter for the politicians when it is clearly a legal matter which has already been ruled upon as unlawful. The problem is that everyone was contaminated by the toxic culture the now infamous Mark James created. It has left a lasting legacy. There was hope when he left, but it seems that true to form CCC continues this culture as 'it's what is best for them'!

caebrwyn said...

Anon 09:58 Yes, it is a total farce and a toxic, poisonous one at that. The letter from the AG came before Mark James left and was clearly not the response he wanted to hear. He will have instructed his successor, and legal Linda accordingly.

Meanwhile...The Wellness Village saga continues and features on the agenda for next Monday's Executive Board meeting. Is it a revised business plan? A list of hungry investors lining up to throw their cash into the sauna-by-the-swamp? We don't know because despite the total shambles so far, the scandal, the secrecy and the police raids, the discussion is set to be held behind closed doors.
Now is not the time for commercial sensitivity, you'll recall what happened last time, but for full transparency. Incidentally, another reason given for the secrecy is that the item includes 'information relating to a particular individual', so presumably this is a data protection issue. An unusual reason in this context.
If I hear more, I'll let you know.

Anonymous said...

For the sake of true democracy and accountability any major discussions that involve massive public funds being spent,MUST NOT be aired behind closed doors. Faith in this Council must be restored before it is too late.

Anonymous said...

Re Executive board – caebrwyn@17:25 and Anonymous@19:23

Surely they will be discussing the implications of the recent massive hike in the interest rate for borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board which must add even more doubt to the viability of the Wellness swamp.

The former chief executive of Boston Borough Council (ironically not THAT former chief executive of Boston Borough Council of the Princess Royal Sports Arena fiasco fame) said:
“This will have a dampening effect on councils refinancing their debt. With Brexit looming, many in the sector will be worried if this is the start of things beginning to go pear-shaped.”
He said that the rise in rates could scupper capital infrastructure projects being planned by councils.
“A lot of local authorities financing is marginal and this big rise could tip schemes over the edge of unviability.”

Redhead said...

Who thevheck would be interested in the Illness Swamp in the current economic climate, except for more dodgy wide boys (and girls). Which reminds me - what is Meryl up to these days?

caebrwyn said...

Anon 08:26
Yes the implications of the PWLB interest rate rise will not only affect Carms and its sauna-by-the-swamp but all four councils who will be taking out millions in new borrowing with the PWLB to fund the various projects.
Aside from the City Deal, Carms is already in debt by £413m with interest payments of £17.45m in 2018/19. £405m of that debt is with the PWLB.

Re my comment 15th October;
Labour's Rob James has hit back at the Plaid and Independent councillors who claimed they had no prior knowledge of the three amendments, including the indemnity issue. He has provided proof, (article in this week's Llanelli Herald) that the relevant City Deal committees were informed of the amendments via a letter and email dated the 12th September.
He also added that the new Programme Director has yet to be appointed. Indeed, I noticed last week that the deadline for applicants has had to be extended.

Re my comment 16th October
This week's 'Cadno' opinion piece in this week's Herald, gives a wry mention of the secrecy around the 'Wellness' report for Monday's Executive Board meeting and speculates on its contents...
"Having been plied with haggis laced with hallucinogens, perhaps a Scottish University has been daft enough to jump on board. Perhaps a mad investor has emerged brandishing a large cheque cashable on the twelfth of bleeding never.....Who knows how the Great Wellness Thingy will be funded? Well no one knows the answer to that one readers; but something will turn up.."

As for the dim and distant 2015 aim to become 'the most transparent council in Wales' (following the 2014 damning WLGA governance report), Emlyn Dole has treated that promise with the same patronising contempt as Mark James did at the time, and ever since.
As we saw with the Rev Dole's cringeworthy eulogy to Mr James at the latter's retirement extravaganza in May, Emlyn has learned all he needs to know from the 2016 Shit of the Year himself.

The news that the Carmarthenshire Herald, and its sister papers the Pembs and Llanelli Heralds, has gone out of business is great shame and a big loss for genuine independent journalism in west Wales. The Herald often reported where others feared to tread and, when necessary, called out the idiocy, injustice, secrecy and backroom deals so prevalent in our local councils. The Carms Herald was never a mouthpiece for Carmarthenshire Council, nor its tin-pot dictator Mark James. The newspaper, through articles and opinion, showed informed scrutiny, with insight, intelligence and, not least of all, a touch of humour.

caebrwyn said...

Tomorrow's item should not be held in secret. The exemptions are subject to a public interest test but to my knowledge this has never been considered prior to throwing everyone out for an 'exempt' item. Ever. For anything.

I guess Meryl is currently wondering what will happen next after having had her house raided by the police on the 31st July...

The police have told me they will issue a further statement as soon as they are able to provide an update.

caebrwyn said...

Pleased to see that the Pembrokeshire Herald has been saved at the eleventh hour with an investor stepping in to secure at least part of the operations. The Pembs Herald will continue in print but the Carmarthenshire and Llanelli editions will be online only.

As per my comments above, the Exec Board went into private session this morning to discuss an item on the notorious Wellness Village. There was no discussion over the exemption (there never is), nor was there a challenge. I daresay the details will eventually seep out but it's worth reminding the council that the minutes should, under Standing Orders, provide a summary of any decision made.

caebrwyn said...

As per my previous comment (21st October) the minutes were finally published yesterday.
The flowery nonsense in the minutes invites the Exec Board (Emlyn Dole and Co) to "acknowledge the approach to financial markets' and "endorse continued discussions" with potential HE partners.
What this actually means is that basically there's still no private finance nor a higher education partner on board for the Wellness dream.
We also learn that the "current" Business Case (exempt, so not published) is incomplete so has yet to be submitted to the City Deal joint committee, let alone the two governments.

So the Golden Road to Wellness is still an overgrown footpath, littered with stuff you don't want to step in. No one in their right mind would invest in this, but then again, sanity is not necessarily a requirement.

The minutes conclude by asking the Exec Board to "approve the initial output of the brand positioning exercise". Brand positioning? Ha! It's doing rather well thanks to the disastrous and toxic leadership of Mark James, his rigged tender, the six month long criminal investigation into bribery allegations, the sacking of academics and raids on the homes of the aforementioned Mark James, County Hall and others by the organised crime squad.
You couldn't get better 'brand positioning', it's all right up there on Google...

Redhead said...

The above comment deserves a post of its own!