Sunday 15 January 2017

The Sicilian Cartel and the Tip of the Iceberg

Many years ago Cneifiwr was working for a large, prestigious and now sadly defunct company in the Big City. The upper echelons were like an old boys' club, and they enjoyed a jet set lifestyle with a cellar full of very expensive vintage wines and ports, "business" trips on Concorde, the best hotels and pretty much unlimited expenses.

Shortly after Cneifiwr joined, shockwaves went through middle management when the first of a series of belt tightening measures was announced for the lower ranks. Henceforth, horrified staff were told, they would no longer be allowed to order a different wine with every course at lunch or dinner.

Slowly but surely the good old days were coming to an end.

Some years later news of a scandal involving the Head of Internal Audit percolated down to one of Cneifiwr's drinking holes.

The Head of Internal Audit was feared and god-like. It was drummed into us that he was the moral guardian of the company; the eyes and ears that were supposed to keep everybody on the straight and narrow. As it happened, Cneifiwr was on nodding terms with God's deputy, a fierce and expensively dressed old bat who would occasionally join Cneifiwr and his cronies for a glass or three of something and a little light flirting.

It turned out that he had died in rather compromising circumstances after a wild party at his very expensive address in Manhattan, a party which had involved lots of drugs and some very expensive ladies. Worse, it seemed that the Old Bat, our occasional drinking buddy, had been conducting a clandestine affair with her boss for years, and that a great deal of company money had been privately invested in some very swish real estate.

The second in command of the company, a large and pompous man who had the strange habit of thrusting both hands down his trousers and fiddling with himself while talking down to his inferiors, was instantly dispatched to New York to tidy things up, a job which involved rather more than just running round with a duster and Hoover. The Old Bat disappeared, probably into early retirement with a himbo in tow, and the whole affair was consigned to the icy depths of the Hudson River, never to be spoken about again.

There were no prosecutions, the police never seem to have been troubled with the affair on either side of the Atlantic, and nothing leaked out to the press; or if it did they kept shtum.

Carmarthenshire County Council will count itself very lucky indeed if it manages to pull off a similarly successful cover-up of the scandals emerging from Pembrey and the Millennium Coastal Park.

For a start, some of the allegations and rumours are circulating well beyond County Hall, and second, Cllr Bill Thomas is on the case.

As far as Cllr Thomas is concerned, one or two senior officers will be praying for all they are worth that the veteran councillor will decide not to stand for re-election as an unaffiliated member in May. Incredibly, the mad house which is the Labour Party in Carmarthenshire has deselected him.

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald and its Llanelli sister (both worth at least 70p) carry an interview with Cllr Thomas and a report of the Audit Committee meeting on 6 January.

Looking back on the meeting, Cllr Thomas told the newspaper that he thought members of the Audit Committee were being duped, and he is calling for a full "forensic" audit of Pembrey Country Park.

Responding to Cllr Thomas's concerns, the council wheeled out its chief financial officer, Chris Moore, to pirouette and spin across some very thin ice as he spoke to the Herald. The paper was given the standard County Hall line. Progress was being made, processes improved, members had been 'reassured', etc.

During the meeting Cllr Thomas had asked if the committee was aware of any imminent court cases. Apparently not, it would seem, which is very odd given that a hearing has been scheduled for 6 February in Cardiff. Even odder when you consider that the council is a party to the case and that one or two of those present at the meeting are likely to play a prominent role in the proceedings.

The solution to this mystery probably boils down to semantics. The 6 February hearing is an employment tribunal, a judicial body stuffed full of lawyers which will at some point deliver a verdict. But it is not, as Mr Moore helpfully pointed out, a criminal court.

The line which council officers are grimly sticking to is that there is no evidence of criminality at Pembrey. It's just that they can't give assurances that all assets can be accounted for, and they cannot guarantee that all revenues from gate receipts and other activities were correctly booked.

The council had engaged in a "dialogue" with the police, he said, and Dyfed Powys had now confirmed that they would be taking no further action.

Note the very careful wording. Did the council go to the police with evidence of fraud and corrupt practices which had been presented to it (remember that there is a recording in which a senior officer yelps "For Christ's sake, don't go to the police)?

It would seem not, even though the accusations are of an extremely serious nature. Whereas the chief executive had no qualms about wasting police time with complaints about Jacqui Thompson's use of the phrase "lumpy carpets", the council seems to have decided not to worry the boys in blue with trivial worries about fraud, theft, blackmail and corruption.

What we can surmise from this is that the police approached the council with some questions (or a "dialogue") based on material which had been forwarded to them by third parties, including Nia Griffiths MP.

Cneifiwr understands that the MP has been given a contradictory assurance by the police that their investigations are continuing.

Performing a final pirouette, Mr Moore told the Herald that members of the Audit Committee had been reassured by officers that action had been taken, including seconding a new team to run the park. If they were reassured by that, they probably also believe that the moon is made of cheese.

Back on 22 March 2016, members of the Audit Committee were told for the first time that various "historical" issues had been identified at the park. The very next day the then manager of the park, Rory Dickinson, assaulted the manager of the catering facilities in a row about what in all likelihood was a severely compromised tender process.

Mr Dickinson remained in post, despite facing a welter of allegations about his conduct, until he resigned from the council a week before his trial seven months later. Was the new team seconded to run the park before or after Mr Dickinson's abrupt departure, which meant that the council had to find someone to replace him in any event? Was the council really as proactive as Mr Moore would like us to believe?

The very anodyne version of what has happened at Pembrey spoon fed to members of the Audit Committee is, as many of them will be aware, a very pale reflection of accusations which extend very much further than the gates of the country park.

The claims include fraud on an industrial scale, thuggery, secret attempts to hive off public assets, nepotism and cover-ups of utterly bizarre conduct by certain officers. One alleged cover-up relates to an incident in which a naturally aggrieved husband caught a senior manager in bed with his wife.The angry husband is said to have thrown the officer out of a first floor bedroom window, breaking his arm. He was then carted off to A&E with the irate husband in pursuit, with another fracas ensuing at the hospital.

After a high level intervention from Jail Hill, the incident was quietly smoothed over. Meryl ("we always defend our officers") was apparently not amused.

Readers with long memories will recall that the latest developments are not the first time that Pembrey has been the subject of controversy.

Back in July 2013 an almighty row broke out when Unison alleged that the council was preparing to privatise the park. Council leader at the time was Kevin Madge (Lab), with Meryl Gravell then, as now, responsible for Regeneration and Leisure.

The allegations met with a furious response from County Hall which released a statement couched in language which sounds more like a hybrid dowager duchess/stroppy teenager on Facebook than a public body:

 Unison's claims are complete and utter tosh and scaremongering. This is same old same old rumour and fabricated diatribe that is resurrected every few years that has absolutely no foundation at all. It is a downright and cheap-shot lie that the park is for sale, designed to provoke anxiety.

Contrary to that outburst, Cneifiwr understands that very real discussions with external investors took place, and that expressions of interest came from far and wide, including from someone in Australia who wanted £22,500 to be paid in expenses to enable him to travel to Pembrey. It was later established that he was a bit strapped for cash at the time after his rose farm went bust.

Proposals included building a theme park on part of the park, extending out on to land owned by Pembrey Airport. Readers may recall that at one time Pembrey Airport had this interesting message to would-be investors on its website:

One of the few Airports in the United Kingdom that has 5000 acres of adjoining land available for joint venture with very little planning and environmental constraints. We are within Convergence funding Area (qualifies for European funding). Pembrey Airport is exempt planning and large tracts of freehold development land are immediately available from the Local Authority.

Sadly, these exciting plans came to nothing, probably because would-be investors discovered that the council had inconveniently leased off some of the biggest cash generators in the park, and some of the allegations now swirling around suggest that attempts to get rid of those inconvenient leaseholders may have something to do with the turbulence which the park has seen in recent years.

Where is Anthony Barrett when you need him?


Patricia B said...

Time to resurrect the 'Carry On' films - there's enough material for a series of them.
All that's left is who is going to play who in them!

Anonymous said...

Infamy, infamy. Cneifiwr's got it in for me!

Don Chester said...

It breaks my heart to think that I'm paying for all this !

Anonymous said...

In your previous posting ‘Undulating Axminster’ you mentioned that “Like proverbial mushrooms, members of the Audit Committee were being kept in the dark and fed horse poo.”

This would seem strange if we are to believe anything in CCC’s constitution is adhered to (but also remembering that it is open to jelly-like interpretation by Messrs James & Rees-Jones).
In ‘Part 4.6 - Financial Procedure Rules/ 19.4 Independence’, we see that “The Head of Audit and Risk Management has unrestricted access to Senior Management and reports directly to the Audit Committee.”

We also see at part ‘20.2 Reporting Procedures Fraud & Corruption’ everything goes through the Head of Audit and Risk Management and it is they who decide what actions are taken.

Also note at ‘Thefts’, CCC has double standards as to whether or not they are reported to the police – one for the general public and one for members of staff.

Cneifiwr said...

Anon - don't believe everything you read in the constitution. Also remember that in Pembrokeshire those controversial building grants went through all sorts of audits and they never spotted anything, including the roof which had been re-roofed and had the moss carefully replaced on the tiles.