Monday 7 November 2022

ICO refusal notice - Operation Koel

I finally had a decision from the Information Commissioner concerning my FOI request for Carmarthenshire council paperwork re Operation Koel - the police Organised Crime Unit investigation into the Wellness Village bribery scandal - and it's a refusal. 

The ICO upheld the council's decision to refuse to disclose the information under Section 40, data protection. 

The details and arguments can be read in the Decision Notice here, essentially the protection of the individuals concerned, (the suspects and others) outweighed the public interest in disclosure. In addition, the information was classed as Criminal Offence Data which is given added protection.

"Having considered the wording of the request, and viewed the withheld information, the Commissioner finds that the requested information includes criminal offence data. It is information provided for the purposes of a police investigation. The data also includes discussion about allegations concerning individuals in relation to this investigation." (ICO)

My public interest argument to the ICO was more or less this;

“The request asked for information relating to an investigation regarding a proposed development, the 'Wellness Village', led by the council. Public funds from the council, the Welsh Government and the Swansea Bay City Deal are being used for the development. Considerable expenditure has already been made, prior and during the police investigation. Governance, audit, oversight, and scrutiny were also led by a democratically elected body, Carmarthenshire Council, at the time.”

I updated the ICO in the summer with the evidence from the employment tribunal (Mark James being a very clearly named suspect) but as this was nine months after my original request it had no bearing on the request, or the ICO decision.

It was always going to be a long shot, and I suspect all documents, emails and correspondence held by the council are heading for the shredder as we speak.  

However, following the evidence released at the Swansea University Employment Tribunal back in the summer, it doesn't really matter. The ICO were right, it is criminal offence data because the then chief executive of the council, Mark James, was caught red-handed accepting bribes from a developer and planning to squirrel them away into a secret trust.

Whatever information the council were holding in respect of the criminal investigation it was unlikely to give better direct, cast iron evidence that Mark James is a crook than the Employment Tribunal judgement.

You will recall that the only reason the CPS discontinued the case was because the developer was deemed to ill to testify. As the police confirmed, there was certainly sufficient evidence, the 'secret trust' email being key to it all...and key to Mark James doing a spell behind bars.

So, where to go from here. Clearly the current Plaid Cymru administration under Darren Price wish to forget it ever happened but as I've said before, I haven't got that luxury. Let alone forget that this conman ran the council for seventeen years. Those senior staff that protected and defended his criminal behaviour are still there.
Meanwhile Mark James continues to prosper and adds to his growing list of company directorships. He continues to expand his Century Wharf empire in Cardiff as a director of the management, and the right to manage companies, feeding his own companies and those of his friends with lucrative contracts and plenty of cash. He's got it all sewn up.

One of those companies Building and Estate Solutions Ltd, is providing claims advice, another company Ffynnon Consultancy Ltd is also providing services to CW Estates to the tune of around £45k last year. Goodness knows what services, Ffynnon Properties Ltd will be providing...the list goes on.

Mark James is a thief and a conman and the residents of CW should be asking some serious questions about where their service charges are ending up...mainly in his wallet. The 'secret trust' email alone proves he's capable of anything. The problem is that he runs the show with the same arrogance, dishonesty and secrecy as he did the council.
The police didn't raid his home without a very good reason. Neither, for that matter, did Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs make him Shit of the Year 2016 without him being a most truly deserving recipient. 

Background and detail to my original FOI request, which was also sent to the police, the CPS and Swansea Uni is here - Operation Koel