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'Private Eye' names names in pay-off scandal

February 8, 2012 8:26 AM
By Trevor Carbin

In a continuation of its campaign against corruption at Kennet District Council the magazine's 'Rotten Boroughs' column has exposed what it calls "ham-fisted attempts to protect the names of senior officers who pocketed thousands in a secret pay deal." Wiltshire Council has tried desperately to keep a cloak of secrecy over the dodgy deals, however the Eye has used the Freedom of Information act to get at the truth. "Although public money was involved", it says, "Tory Wiltshire Council ... refused to name names following a FoI request, citing the data protection act."

Following the Information Commissioner's ruling that the cover-up was not in the public interest, the magazine was able to reveal that the beneficiaries of the scam were Chief Exec Mark Boden, HR director Anne Ewing and Chief Finance Officer Andrew Hart. The trio "not only helped decide who among 20-odd officers received what, but also trousered pocket money themselves: £10,360 for Boden, £5,733 for Ewing and £6,298 for Hart."

The clique claimed they were taking the payments for work in preparing for the switch to Wiltshire Council, but auditors KPMG pointed out that this was what they were employed to do anyway. Private Eye goes on to quote an email from Hart explaining how officers who knew about the deal needed to be given a cut to ensure their silence.

However Wiltshire Council, which regularly prosecutes people who get behind with their council tax payments, has previously agreed that no action will be taken against the perpetrators for reasons explained below.

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History

Wiltshire Council leader Jane Scott admitted in February 2011 that the council would not pursue claims against top officers who were paid off at the time of the move to one council.

In an answer to Hilperton councillor Ernie Clark, Scott said, "The Council is pursuing two claims amounting to a total sum of £20,000. Both cases are being contested... The Council is considering its position in the light of the points raised in defence."

The implication is that the overpayments will be quietly forgotten about.

In May 2010 Scott was forced to answer questions from councillors on the "non-pensionable Honorarium" payments to top officers on the old Kennet District Council, following revelations about the pay-offs in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs column.

Marlborough councillor Nick Fogg asked if the council was going to do anything to get the money paid out returned to the taxpayer.

In reply Scott claimed there was no "direct evidence" of wrongdoing, but that attempts were being made to reclaim excessive payments.

A report to Wiltshire Council's Audit Committee on December 9th 2009 referred to pay-offs given to senior staff members at Kennet District Council in the run-up to the council's abolition. An update went to the meeting of the Audit Committee in March 2010, the contents of which were kept secret by the council. The council's solicitor refused to permit the disclosure of details of the scandal to the public, because it would cause very serious embarrassment to senior councillors and officers who may have been involved in both the original errors and the costly attempts to make sure nobody found out about them.

However the information below was extracted from the agenda for the public part of the meeting.

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Purpose of Report

1. To advise the Committee of the findings of an independent audit report of nonpensionable honorarium payments made to some employees of the former Kennet District Council.

Background

2. As part of the monitoring of the relevant decisions of the five councils in the period of transition to one Council the Monitoring Officer and the s151 Officer of Wiltshire Council referred to the Chief Executive of Wiltshire Council honorarium payments made to some former employees of Kennet District Council. In order to ensure transparency and accountability, he agreed that the Council's external auditors, KPMG, should be commissioned to carry out an independent audit of the nonpensionable honorarium payments. A copy of the executive summary of their report is circulated as a secret document.

Main Considerations for the Council

3. The audit report concludes that the payments were made under appropriate authority but the approach followed by the Council in determining how non-pensionable honorarium payments should be made, and to whom, lacked objectivity and transparency and was insufficiently documented. The report, however, stressed that no direct evidence of deceitful or illicit behaviour was uncovered during the audit.

4. Wiltshire Council is required to satisfy itself as to the validity of the payments included within the audit. Counsel's advice is therefore being sought on the legality of these payments in order to determine whether any recovery action is appropriate.

5. Although the circumstances described in the audit report arose in a predecessor authority, the auditors have provided a number of recommendations, based on good practice, to be implemented in relation to Wiltshire Council's policy on nonpensionable honoraria. These recommendations have been accepted as shown in the Action Plan appended to this report and will be implemented alongside the recommendations made by KPMG and incorporated in another report presented to this committee (The "Five Councils" report). Review of the policy will need to take account of pay harmonisation and TUPE requirements.

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Although Liberal Democrat members of Wiltshire Council's Audit Committee opposed closing the doors on the press and public when the committee discussed pay-offs made to officers on the former Kennet District Council, the Conservatives and Independent voted for secrecy.

A motion to put out a neutered press release explaining how the scandal was created but without naming names or compromising possible future legal action was defeated on the vote of committee chairman Roy While (Con). So the facts must remain secret, and members of the public will have to read between the lines to work out what really happened to their money in Kennet.