Saturday 1 January 2022

Operation Koel

Back in July I made several separate FOI requests for documents relating to the Wellness Village bribery investigation. Due to the scandal the project was later renamed Pentre Awel.

This criminal investigation was undertaken by Tarian, the regional organised crime squad and was given the name Operation Koel.

The CPS decided not to pursue this highly complex case as one of the key witnesses was deemed unfit to be questioned further, or to testify. The police issued a revised statement to make it crystal clear that there was, indeed, sufficient evidence.

“There was evidence of potential criminal offending identified and secured against individuals and companies subject to this enquiry and this was submitted as part of the file of evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service, who made their decision that it was not in the public interest to proceed with any prosecutions.”

The whole squalid episode has been covered on this blog many times but, for new readers, here’s the gist: Mark James, when CEO of Carmarthenshire Council, rigged a council tender to ensure that Kent based company Sterling Health won the job to develop the Wellness Village, Llanelli, which was also to be funded by the Swansea Bay City Deal. 

Both he, and others, including former Swansea University academic Marc Clement had accepted the promise of bribes worth millions from the director of Sterling, Franz Dickmann. The plan was to squirrel away the cash into offshore trusts.

Clement, and others, were sacked by the Uni for gross misconduct but James managed to ‘retire’ without the council daring, as per usual, to raise an eyebrow. In effect, of course, he was the council.

Marc Clement and Mark James
There is a significant amount of further background and detail on this blog, if you wish to search.

Anyway, back to my FOI requests which were made to the CPS, four police forces, Kent, Gwent, South Wales and Dyfed Powys, Swansea University and Carmarthenshire Council, for documents, correspondence, reports, evidence, CPS decision etc etc, and all were refused. Out of the police forces only South Wales held information, which was also refused.

To be honest there’s enough in the public domain, and information I have had from cast iron sources to know exactly what went on, as I described above and on this blog.

However, FOIs can be interesting, not just for any information released but equally for what is withheld.
The main thrust of the refusals were under Section 30 and Section 40, with the balance of whether to release information based on the usual public interest tests.

The CPS and the police were able to use Section 30 which basically means that they have a right to withhold operational details which could compromise their ability to investigate future crimes. It also covers information held which refers to whether a person should be charged with an offence or whether the person charged is guilty of the offence.
Section 40, data protection exemptions were also deployed

Swansea University were able to use similar exemptions as they had carried out internal investigations and, interestingly, confirmed that Employment Tribunals are still ongoing. We don’t know whether Mark James’ partner in crime Marc Clement is continuing with his, or whether it is one or more of the others who had previously threatened such action. 

Whatever the case, as Swansea University said in their statement back in March “the evidence compiled by the university will obviously come out during the employment tribunal, which will take place in the public domain, should the individuals still wish to proceed.”

In other words, the evidence will be made public, one way or another.
(Update; Clement, former Vice-Chancellor Richard Davies and two other former academics all of whom were sacked for gross misconduct will have their claims considered at a hearing in the summer.)

Which bring us to Carmarthenshire Council, the last to respond, just before Christmas. The delay, I was told, was due in part to the volume of information. Once the relevant documents had been unearthed, the council had to then ask the police whether it could be disclosed, as it was the latter who had carried out the investigation. A rather useful get out clause.

There were I am told, a ‘variety’ of records including:

Emails between council officers

Emails between council officers and the police

Court and other legal documents provided to the council by the police

Email and other correspondence between council officers and third parties

Unlike the other public bodies the council couldn’t use Section 30 as it hadn’t investigated anything. The council relied on the general data protection exemption, and also "some of the personal data falling within the scope of your request relates to the alleged commission of offences by some of the data subjects and therefore constitutes criminal offence data by virtue of section 11(2) of the Data Protection Act 2018"...

Mr Edgecombe, the council solicitor told me in his response that if I appealed against this refusal to the Information Commissioner, he had other exemptions ready to deploy, but wouldn’t say what they were.
Anyone would think this was an elaborate game.

As for the public interest test, Edgecombe said
“I do not believe that the council has any legitimate interests which make it necessary for it to process the personal data of these data subjects in this way
"I do not believe that you have a legitimate interest in respect of which it is necessary for this disclosure to be made. In particular you were not a victim of any alleged criminal conduct which was being investigated as part of Operation Koel”.

It's worth remembering at this point that not only were the homes of the former CEO Mark James, and former Leader Meryl Gravell raided by the police but so was County Hall. Documents and electronic equipment were seized from all three. At one point Mark James was arrested for failing to cooperate with a police investigation.

I’d argue that the residents and taxpayers of Carmarthenshire, including me, were all victims. A CEO of a council is a position of trust, he really shouldn’t be rigging tenders or accepting bribes from a developer. Of course, even prior to all this, James career was built on corruption and a contempt for the law.

I will argue, when I appeal to the information Commissioner that the public, and indeed the councillors, have a very legitimate interest, a right in fact, to see this withheld information.
Further to that is the involvement or knowledge of this fraud from those close to, and in the pocket of Mark James; leader Emlyn Dole, Wendy Walters, head of legal Linda Rees Jones, finance chief Chris Moore, and others.
I also, undoubtedly, have a personal interest in this matter. I am paying James every month, as he has a suspended order for sale on my home from his illegal publicly funded counterclaim. He is as much a dishonest crook today, as when I said it back then. I will have justice.

All the FOI requests and responses can be read here, (the first seven in the list).

(Update 1st Feb; The ICO got back to me to say that I needed to request a second internal review from the council. That has now been sent in so I'll let you know how that pans out, eventually.)

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy 2022


Anonymous said...

The most pertinent issue is how national politicians from Mark Drakeford to Simon Hart to Adam Price have conveniently ignored what has been going on. Not one of them has intervened in this scandal despite taxpayers’ money being put at risk through the actions of a few individuals who had their own interests at heart.

Even more disappointing is the stance of Martin Shipton in the Western Mail who has now become a cheerleader for Clement and James over the last two years. Previously a champion of those who could not get justice elsewhere such as yourself, he has been consistently peddling whatever lines he is given by those supporting these two charlatans. Perhape you should send him all your evidence so that he can take a more considered view of what has happened

Anonymous said...

Adam Price only criticises anyway, he does nothing else, not even answering questions put by his constituents.

Anonymous said...

if a mere employee had tried to manipulate a tender and was found out - it would have been a police matter - fired and loss of pension

higher up people those who have the one rule for them and one rule for us seem to get promoted or get a big pay off

public sector fraud never seems to be taken seriously - look at those billions lost from the grants - loans from the pandemic measures to businesses money just thrown at them by the UK treasury

Anonymous said...

The 2022 Welsh local elections are due to be held on 5 May 2022 to elect members of all twenty-two local authorities in Wales. They are being held alongside other local elections in the United Kingdom. The last elections were held in 2017.

I think this should be a target to cleanise the Council of at least its senior managers - the James' gang and a fresh mandate from the public re the Councillors

The council needs to move on from its disreputable past and start anew

Local elector said...

Anonymous at 10.23
I totally agree with your comments, and suggest that even more actions be taken to ensure that the existing County Councillors who for the last five years have ensured the lack of any credibility, never again be given the opportunity to be elected councillors.
The opportunity for the electorate to express their disgust for the misuse of power over the last years to the Political Parties involved will never be a more opportune moment for change making.
It is the electorate who choose their Councillors to represent their interests at the ballot box. Political Party interests have no place in the democratic management of the affairs of the Local Authority, and further more the councillors are elected to manage the affairs of the Local Authority and not be subservient to the Officers

Anonymous said...

Forget PLAID

The only hope we have of getting a honest council is to vote INDEPENDENCE


Anonymous said...

Error above should have said INDEPENDANT councillor and not INDEPENDANCE.
Independence under PLAID control would ruin Wales.

Sian Caiach said...

Independent Councillors, in my experience of Carmarthenshire County Council are far from immune to the dodgy "fun and games" in county Hall. Mrs Meryl Gravell was a fine example of an "Independent" councillor who, as Council leader supported the CEO Mark James to the hilt. She organised her "Independent" Group who acted very much like a political party, to fully support the Council's senior officers who actually ran the council. It will take a real culture change to bring anything that looks like real democracy to Carmarthenshire County Council and few people are brave enough to stand up in the chamber to actually represent their voters and ask for what their own people and heeds.
I have been a Commnuity Councillor since 2001 and was a county Councillor for nine years until I lost my seat in 2017 . The returning officer, Mr Mark James, left our Hengoed ward County County result until last and most people had left the hall. Candidates are usually shown the results of the election before it is announced officially. In 2017 Mr Jams for some reason did not do so, jumped on to the stage and invited the candidates to follow and quickly announced the names only of the 2 "clear winners" When later I was give the results I realised I had lost by a small margin and should have had a recount. As Mr James had officially already declared the result I could only have challenged it, and demanded a recount, by going to court at my own expense, He knew I did not have the financial resources to do so and could not conceal his pleasure at getting rid of me.
However, in the following months I did sleep a lot better as I no longer felt any responsibility for the County Council and still had my Rural Council seat and so could still represent my ward and its residents at that level.
Community and parish councillors, essentially unpaid {although you can claim travelling and other expanses}, I think often do more good work than their County and Borough equivalents.

Anonymous said...

Possibly off topic.
On the Guardian there is an article on planning for silos erected by Victorian Sliders Limited in Cross Hands.
Yet looking in Companies House this company has been dormant with zero employees for quite a few years.
Is there an explanation for this ?

Anonymous said...

Naughty Napoleons tenure has long expired. How come he is still at large?

Guess he's yet to do business with any dodgy Russians, they certainly don't rely on the law to administer justice, preferring their own social version.

caebrwyn said...

Anon 13:13
Companies House shows several companies connected to Victorian Sliders, Victorian House (Sales) Ltd seems to be the main trading arm. It had a £14m grant from the Business Growth Fund last September. Unfortunately it appears they didn't realise planning permission might be needed for the eight recently erected 10-12 metre silos at the factory. However the planning officers and committee duly obliged with the nod of retrospective approval. Hence the newspaper article.

caebrwyn said...

Politically the silence has been deafening over this messy scandal but as I've learnt over the years, most prefer not to rock the boat unless there's political advancement to be made. Those that watch from the wings and say nothing become complicit by their inaction.
It's disappointing to say the least that it takes a blogger, ie a member of the public, to expose the scandal in the first place and then to try and get information through FOI. Sadly this has always been par for the course in Carmarthenshire. Where's the outrage, Where's the demand for an independent inquiry?
Yes vote wisely in May, better still, if you want change then stand for election.

Anon 3rd Jan 20:16
Yes it's always the case. The top brass get away with it whereas a mere employee would be fired etc without question.
A good example, (although on a lesser scale than his acceptance of massive bribes), was Mark James' use of council computers and staff to research a private complaint about me. It turned out, again through FOI, that around the same time, eight other employees had been either disciplined or dismissed for accessing council computers for personal use. Nothing happened to James of course.

@Sian Caiach
Well said.
Absolutely right, Mr James liked to ensure everything went his way, from rigging elections to tenders, whatever it took, and not forgetting his appalling attempts to control the local press.

In the 2012 election I was the subject of a smear campaign by James who conducted it through my opponent, the loyal sitting councillor. It was also in the middle of the libel litigation.

My note - Sian Caiach was the only one brave enough in the council chamber to called him out for exactly what he was, an arrogant, vicious control freak. He made sure she lost her seat in 2017.

Anon 20:27
Indeed! Napoleon is still at large, exerting his corrupt, malign influence elsewhere, and maybe even still lurks in the dark corners of local government...
You never know, he may well do business with dodgy Russians one day, or failing that, someone with similar methods of administering justice...

caebrwyn said...

I've now written to the Information Commissioner to appeal against the council’s refusal to provide the information they hold on Operation Koel.
I await response.

Anonymous said...

It seems the role of a local authority CEO is a troubled one

The illegal payoff of the Pembrokeshire CEO - the appointment of a Army Major
The CEO of sheffield City Council with the drinks scandal with Boris Johnson
The ongoing issues with Carmarthenshire Council

These are the one we have heard about in the last week - I asm sure there are many other CEO stories

Maybe the role needs a rethink and a better mechanism introduced with more checks and balances and transparentancy

Anonymous said...

watched the film save the cinema about the lyric carmarthen

very enjoyable and identifing how they mixed up the locations

One thing missing for me was a character called Mark James - perhaps such a person was too fancifull for the plot !

sian caiach said...

The convenient illness of one of the accused messing up a Fraud trial reminds me of the Guinness Fraud trials in the 1980'swhere one of the 4 accused submitted medical evidence of pre-senile dementia and was unable to be interviewed. He was Ernest Saunders and subsequently was lucky enough to have complete recovery of his mental powers after a short time in prison.

In this trial the 4 business men were caught inflating the price of Guinness shares by manipulating the stock market, thus overvaluing their own stock and allowing a take over of rival firm, Distillers .

I wonder if the unfortunate person unable to help with information in the Wellness investigation will be as fortunate as Earnest Saunders and have a complete recovery??

caebrwyn said...

@Anon 15:28
Ah yes, the film was set in 1993, pre-dating Mark James' arrival in seems he was busy in the borough of Boston at the time, tampering with official documents and lying under oath...

@Sian Caiach
I did ask, in my FOI to Kent Police for any medical reports (anonymised of course) relating to the suspects in the case. It seems they passed all their evidence and documents, including reports relating to Franz Dickmann, onto to South Wales Police, who refused my request.

caebrwyn said...

Amongst Marc Clement's tangled web of directorships on Companies House is Calon Cardio Tech. Clement was recently interviewed by WalesOnline for an article about the company. Although I'm sure the firm is perfectly legit, it still lists 'Professor' Clement's company registration address as Swansea University. He was, of course, dismissed from the Uni in 2019 for gross misconduct. Seems it needs an update...

Clement also confirms to WalesOnline that Employment Tribunal hearings for himself, the former vice chancellor Richard Davies and two others, all sacked for gross misconduct relating to the Wellness Village scandal, will be held in the summer.... should be interesting....You will recall that the police made it clear that, despite the CPS dropping charges, there was evidence of criminal behaviour. And that evidence also implicated Mark James.
As I mentioned in my previous comment, the CPS dropped the case as a key witness was unwell.

As for Mark James departure from County Hall, he was allowed to scarper despite rigging the tender, accepting bribes, and trashing the council's reputation.
No one even asked him to repay the cash from his illegal libel indemnity and the pension tax avoidance scam. This is unsurprising really given that those who assisted with, and covered-up his criminality, Ms Rees Jones, Chris Moore, Wendy Walters, Emlyn Dole etc acquired their roles from him, in exchange for blind loyalty and silence. But once a thief and a liar, always a thief and a liar, and some of us are keeping track....

It has been pointed out to me that Koel is another name for a cuckoo. Essentially a parasite which lays its eggs in other birds nests.
Seems appropriate.

Anonymous said...

never say never charges can be bought - as any new evidence could trigger a new investigation

Anonymous said...

its strange the police can investigate and possibky fine people who ate cake in number 10 year ago but cannot charge people who are suspected of public sector fraud

look how the govt wrote off 4billion to fraud under the bounce back loans and is only in the headlines because a tory peer resigned

you do wonder because if someone on benefits was found to have done something wrong they would be prosecuted under the criminal law - it beggars belief

why have the councilors not taken out a civil action againist these people and those in the tendering unit / audit units not questioned


"Even more disappointing is the stance of Martin Shipton in the Western Mail who has now become a cheerleader for Clement and James over the last two years. Previously a champion of those who could not get justice elsewhere such as yourself, he has been consistently peddling whatever lines he is given by those supporting these two charlatans. Perhape you should send him all your evidence so that he can take a more considered view of what has happened."
I think Mr Shipton once stood for election to the then Welsh Assembly in the dim and distant past running on a broadly pro-devolution ticket. This is highly unusual and may be highly significant.

Anonymous said...

Wales' public sector rich list: The best paid officials in the nation

Carmarthenshire :
Medwin Hughes, vice chancellor, University of Wales Trinity St David: £232,000
Wendy Walters Total £179,777
Chief constable, Dyfed-Powys Total remuneration: £189,623
Chief executive of Hywel Dda health board Total remuneration: £205-210,000

we are served well in Carmarthenshire ! living the dream

Martin Shipton got 55 votes in the Ceredigion by-election 2000, coming bottom with disgraced former Plaid politician Simon Thomas winning.

caebrwyn said...

Anon 09:26
Yes, living the dream indeed!
Close behind Ms Walters' bumper pay packet is the Director of Communities on £145k and three more Directors on £132k, an Assistant CEO on £110k and 16 Heads of Service, which includes the hopelessly incompetent Monitoring Officer, on £98k apiece.
And that's without adding the pension contributions, which, for each Director for example, is around £25k.

Anonymous said...

When you think this is replicated 22 times in Wales and add in the health this is a lot of money

in the levelling up paper from Grove wales seems to languish at the bottom of most of the tables such a poverty etc and has done so for too long

We seem to be rewarding failure with these people

Nice if you get one of these jobs - no accountablility / no targets / no consequences / job for life rewarded with a big pension

Carmarthenshire in particular is on a downward slope - wouldn't look to Wendy walters and her crew to do much about it

Anonymous said...

When M&S has to issue a statement to reassure residents they are not closing the store in Carmarthen town and the Debenhams store is turned into another hwb then things do look grim

In fact all the town centres are in a downward spiral with shop closures - New Look being the latest - the Council has an allmighty task on their hands are they up to it

Carmarthenshire Residents Alliance said...

The Llanelli Star published a letter 10th February 2022, reproduced in Friends of Burry Port Harbour, written by Cllr John James titled "Strategy rethink is needed over harbour"
The "volte face" stance by Cllr James, has come to late, the damage has been done. Cllr James should consider an apology to the residents, boat owners, and fishermen, for allowing the harbour basin, the marina to be unworkable as such, totally untenable

The responsibilities of the elected County Councillor John James is to the electorate who put him on Council and not be subservient to the Senior Officers, and listen to and take notice of the residents concerns.

Their are 3 more elected councillors acting for Pembrey and Burry Port all of whom are responsible for the harbours wellbeing and all four should examine their positions as elected representatives on County Council.

Carmarthenshire Residents Alliance