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