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.