The council had been aware of the reports' findings for several months and knew exactly when they would be published. Despite that, and despite having one of the largest press and PR operations in Wales, the release of two documents saw the council caught like a rabbit in the headlights.
For several hours journalists were told that a statement would be forthcoming. In the end all they got was a terse statement, as follows:
"The Wales Audit Office reports have been received and will be carefully considered by the council in due course. It would not be appropriate to comment further until such time."
It seems that the chief executive himself was off sick yesterday, and the silence continued for much of the day until shortly after 5 pm when a lengthy statement was released and immediately published by the Carmarthen Journal.
Who the statement is attributed to is not clear, but the Llanelli Star, which also picked it up, put it down to a "spokeswoman" (no prizes for guessing who that is). So far, then, there has not been a peep out of Kevin Madge or any of the other senior councillors who are supposed to be running the show.
For reasons which are not immediately apparent, the text of the council's statement as published on the Journal's website underwent drastic pruning overnight, and the current version can be found here. Thanks to the miracles of digital technology, Cneifiwr is able to reproduce the original version below.
From the statement it seems that Mr James is digging in and preparing to fight. A couple of things stand out from the response.
Firstly, we are told that a member of the public who had queried the libel indemnity decision had been assured by the Wales Audit Office that everything was in order. The council's statement then continues in true Jail Hill fashion:
Clearly they have now changed their minds, some considerable time after the decision was taken, and too late for us to turn back the clock.
Who that member of the public was, we are not told, but Cneifiwr is aware of four separate representations made to the WAO last year. Three of them were given no such assurances, and bizarrely that would seem to leave just the fourth member of the public who was none other than Jacqui Thompson herself.
Jacqui had raised her concerns with the WAO and eventually went along to meet a couple of representatives. They had spoken to Mrs Linda Rees Jones, the council's acting Head of Law, and possibly others in the council, and had been assured that everything was legally in order.
This was disappointing, but did not come as a surprise to a number of people who had had dealings with the WAO on matters relating to Carmarthenshire County Council. The general perception at the time was that the WAO was too close to the council and too ready to accept explanations for apparent lapses from senior officers.
What changed was the arrival on the scene of Mr Anthony Barrett and a much more rigorous approach to investigations.
But back to the shrinking press release. One of the chunks which has vanished reads as follows:
"We remain firmly of the belief that we acted legally and properly as a caring employer should. Our Chief Executive was subject to a campaign of defamation and harassment. He was being victimised not because of anything in his personal life, but because of the job he does for us. This was borne out by the findings of the court judgement. It is only right and proper that we defend and support one of our employees who may find themselves in such an exceptional situation purely because they were doing their job.
Any good employer would do the same."
One of the reasons why Mr James finds himself at the centre of another storm is his autocratic style and his interpretation of his role.
An interesting test is to Google the names of different Welsh chief executives. Google Bronwen Morgan (Ceredigion) or Steve Phillips (Neath Port Talbot), and you will find references mostly to council documents.
Google "Mark James Carmarthenshire", and you will find a huge array of information, including countless press articles and interviews.
No other Welsh council chief executive maintains such a high public profile. No other Welsh chief executive has built for himself a media platform which includes both the council's own paper and also two leading local weeklies. No other Welsh chief executive has so frequently crossed the line which separates neutral public servants from the politicians.
If anyone is in any doubt what the council's view is of the auditor's reports, a single line in the statement spells it out:
Although the Wales Audit Office has expressed an ‘opinion’, that opinion does not in itself determine that the council’s actions were unlawful.
It looks as though we are in for a long ride and are now heading for the courts.
The Wales Audit Office is clearly not impressed, and has responded to the council's statement as follows:
"The Appointed Auditor stands by the conclusions in his reports issued today.
Regarding the issue of the pay supplement in lieu of employer's pension contributions, the process was significantly flawed, thereby rendering the policy unlawful. In particular, the council have not demonstrated proper exercise of discretion in setting ‘reasonable remuneration’.
In relation to the granting of an indemnity to the Chief Executive, the Appointed Auditor firmly remains of the view that the decision was unlawful.
If the Council does not accept this view, the Appointed Auditor may apply to the courts for a declaration that the item of account is contrary to law."
Text of Council Statement released yesterday
Regarding the issue of the pay supplement in lieu of employer's pension contributions, we are pleased to note that the Auditor does not form the view that the policy itself was unlawful, but that it was the procedural process that was flawed.
This is in accordance with the legal advice that we ourselves have received. We fully accept his findings on the matters of procedure, particularly that the matter should have been included as a separate item on the agenda for the meeting, and have already taken steps to ensure that such errors are not repeated in future.
Although the report author was present at the meeting, he has not benefitted personally in any way from the decision, nor would he ever be likely to do so, and there is no question of anyone seeking to influence the decision in order to gain any material advantage. The procedural errors were an honest mistake and there has been no impropriety of any sort. We would also like to reiterate that the proposed alternative pension arrangements did not involve any additional cost to the authority.
Regarding the indemnity, we sought legal advice from day one and remain convinced that the advice we have received, that the council has the power to grant such an indemnity in these circumstances, is correct. Although the Wales Audit Office has expressed an 'opinion', that opinion does not in itself determine that the council's actions were unlawful.
We have been completely open and consulted the Wales Audit Office at the outset, prior to granting the indemnity, and they did not advise against the action we took. Some months after the indemnity had been granted, the Wales Audit Office further confirmed to a member of the public who queried the decision that they felt the council's action was lawful. Clearly they have now changed their minds, some considerable time after the decision was taken, and too late for us to turn back the clock.
We remain firmly of the belief that we acted legally and properly as a caring employer should. Our Chief Executive was subject to a campaign of defamation and harassment. He was being victimised not because of anything in his personal life, but because of the job he does for us. This was borne out by the findings of the court judgement. It is only right and proper that we defend and support one of our employees who may find themselves in such an exceptional situation purely because they were doing their job.
Any good employer would do the same.
The indemnity was just that, an indemnity against costs should the Chief Executive not be successful in his counter claim. In the event of course, he was successful and the judge awarded costs and damages against the other party. As a result, the costs should ultimately be met by the person who originated the legal action and not the council.
Finally we want to assure everyone there will be a full and open debate on these reports at full council in due course. The press and public are of course always welcome to attend, and the proceedings will be filmed via webcam for everyone to watch on our website. We look forward to being able to bring all the facts to this public forum to demonstrate that our actions and intentions were honourable and lawful at all times.