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.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Rotten Boroughs Awards 2019 - Order of the Brown Nose!

Despite his timely and hurried retirement it is pleasing to see that Mark James once again graces the pages of Private Eye. 
The eagerly awaited Rotten Boroughs New Year Honours in the latest edition gives the prestigious Order of the Brown Nose to former council press officer Ron Cant for his oozing tribute to the 'visionary man of steel'...

Private Eye issue 1513, Jan 2020

This potential nomination for Mr Cant first emerged back in April and was posted on this blog, along with a handy list of the numerous accolades and Honours bestowed on Mr James and his rotten borough by the Eye over recent years.

Another contender for the OBN Honour was surely Plaid council leader Emlyn Dole whose obsequious, fawning tribute to the retiring chief executive in May surpassed even Mr Cant's efforts to elevate Mr James to sainthood. Observers of that council meeting, who managed to hold back the nausea, even detected tears in the Reverend Dole's eyes...
The Herald's columnist Cadno was one of those observers...

Surpassing both, of course, was Mr James own extraordinary tribute to himself; a speech resplendent in grotesque self-praise, narcissism and toe-curling conceit, which ended with an attack on the press and those pesky bloggers. It was an attack to which I replied...

I had already posted my own tribute to Mr James when he announced his retirement back in January...and again in April...a little more accurate than Mr Cant's version...

Meanwhile, as the Eye reminds us, we await the outcome of the police investigation, and whatever the future might hold for the Shit of the Year 2016...