Sunday 12 August 2018

Motive and opportunity - How was the CEO of Carmarthenshire County Council allowed to embark on a private vendetta using public money?

Government at all levels can wield power by funding policies, changing laws and prosecuting opponents. Governments, even local Unitary Authorities can  essentially have bottomless pockets when it comes to legal matters. This was certainly the case in the libel action defence and counter claim fully funded by Carmarthenshire County Council against Mrs Jacqui Thompson.  Mrs Thompson had been  critical of Carmarthenshire County Council  Eventually the Chief Executive, Mr Mark James, inexplicably made an inaccurate and quite vicious comment on the Madaxeman Blog, "on behalf of the Authority" but not apparently approved  by the Leader of Council prior to the action.

Mrs Thompson decided to sue the Council and Mr James for libel. The County Council decided to defend both themselves and the CEO in court, All of the planning for this legal action was made by Senior Council Officers and Senior Elected Councillors, in Camera, in secret, so that the public and the ordinary councillors were not informed.

Eventually the Wales Audit Office ruled that financing the Counter Claim by Council Chief Executive Officer Mark James was unlawful. The exempt documents show that the council allegedly had contacted the WAO before their decision meeting to fund Mr James in January 2012. The Executive  Board Councillors were seemingly never given at reply from The WAO. Why not?

There was good reason for secrecy and subterfuge. Had the other county councillors and the public known the full  details then there may have been enough protest to stop the huge spend of public money the Executive were planning in order to maintain the reputation of the Chief Officer, Mr Mark James .

Also, the Senior Officers and Executive Councillors knew that the case would not  be a straightforward libel action and counterclaim. It was vital that Mrs Thompson and her legal team would not know that a completely different legal angle, a non violent harassment by blogging,  would be the essence of the case, This meant that Mrs Thompson's defence would only find this out in court, probably have insufficient time to prepare a full rebuttal on this new issue and the County Council would triumph in punishing an irritating local resident who would surely be destroyed not only in reputation but by severe financial sanction.

This reason for secrecy is explained under "Implications" on page 5 of the minutes of this Agenda Report Item. Did any of the Exec Board read this? It was common practice that Exempt Documents were carefully collected from the meetings as you left and given out as close to meeting dates as possible.When I was a Councillor I used to sneakily photocopy those presented to me in full council,  for my own protection, and hand in the originals, but did the Exec Board? I doubt it. No wonder they can't remember exactly what they agreed to.

 Mrs Thompson, if she lost, clearly would not be very  likely to afford to pay back the Council's Costs or the full damages to Mr James. The executive board minutes show that the need for absolute secrecy was important and the reputation of the chief officer was to be their primary concern

It would be an example to all residents of Carmarthenshire County Council and especially protect the chief executive, Mark James from further criticism. Bloggers would have to self-censor carefully or have the County Council on their backs!

A great plan, but there were several possible obstacles. Could the senior county councillors be persuaded that they could actually do this? Was the reputation of the County Council Chief Executive so important that they had to do this? Unfortunately the members of the executive board appear hand picked for compliancy and total trust in the clever senior officers. Subsequently several have told me privately that they realise now that they were manipulated and one present on that day has even admitted that they no longer have any regard for the CEO. Mr James attended the whole of the meeting which gave him the funds to fight his case. The Wales Audit Office condemns this as wholly improper,

The decision to spend over a quarter of a million pounds of public money on the libel cases was taken in this closed meeting on the 23rd of January 2012. Council officers significantly outnumbered the elected members.

The main mover appears to be Head of Legal and Administration Linda Rees Jones at that time CCC's"Acting Head of Law and Administration" and also "Acting Monitoring Officer". Her legal report explains the crisis the Executive Board must address and the way that she believes local government law can be interpreted to allow the legal actions to be funded totally by the  taxpayers of Carmarthenshire. Subsequently she had the good fortune to obtain the permanent position in those posts.


(1) If an indemnity is not granted the Head of Paid Service would be personally liable for legal costs associated with those court proceedings

(2) The Authority owes its employees a duty of care and an indemnity to the Head of Paid Service in the circumstances of this case is proportionate and reasonable.

So, the main reasons are that the CEO is not to be allowed to fight his own battles, despite perhaps recklessly commenting on a blog.  Linda Rees Jones advises that paying the fees in this case is actually part of the duty of care the senior Councillors owe to their Chief Officer, the head of paid service, Mark James. 

But oops! Mr James wants to make a libel counter claim and that isn't allowed, surely??

Linda goes on to explain that the County Council is only indemnified to fight a libel action themselves, not a counter claim by a senior officer. The solicitors for both Mrs Thompson and CCC were on the point of agreeing a modest settlement of the libel claim. However, if this was accepted it would imply that Mr Mark James was perhaps at fault , having made a possibly defamatory statement about the Thompson Family on the Madaxeman Blog.

Linda has discovered a "catch all" clause - section 111 of the Local Government Act of 1972 which allows Authorities to do "anything" (whether or not involving expenditure...) which is calculated to facilitate or is conducive or incidental to the discharge of any of its functions".

 She also states that CCC had been advised back in 2008 that giving an indemnity to an officer was potentially lawful, but that it should only be exercised in exceptional circumstances.

Integrity and Reputation, states Ms Rees Jones, are Essential for Mr James to command respect, enable him to lead and undertake his duties.  The Executive Board were asked to decide whether this was to be regarded as "exceptional circumstances" and they apparently agreed . Defending the good name of the Chief Officer was to be regarded as a vital function of the County Council

 The executive board members I have spoken to claim they were given the impression that the threat of the counter claim would make the whole embarrassing matter "go away" as Mrs Thompson would surely back down. If so, why the secrecy and the admission  that a leading libel lawyer had already planned a new tack to ensure success?

Did they really agree to this without even being able to retain their copies of  Ms. Rees Jones' report? Were they given these documents on the day only or were they really given time to read, digest and even get a second opinion? It seems not.

There are 2 other parts of the report which stand out.

(h) .....It is unclear whether the other party has the financial means to meet any order for damages and/or costs that may be made.

So there was clear doubt that Mrs Thompson could pay any legal costs awarded against her and the secrecy meant that she had no idea that the new tactic to use her blog as evidence of a harassment campaign which would probably invalidate the insurance she had taken out,

(i)  The Head of Paid Service has confirmed that he is not motivated by a wish to benefit financially and that accordingly should his action be successful any damages awarded to him will be paid over to the authority and will not be kept by him.

Subsequently Mr James decided to take all the damages for himself, declined to accept  regular  affordable repayments and tried to force the sale of the Thompson's family home so he could get all of the money at once and make the family "intentionally homeless". 
The WAO report shows an email between Mr James and MS Rees Jones confirming the statement above prior to the meeting Was the change of heart pure malice or had he not, in his mind, made this promise, or was Ms Rees Jones mistaken? Maybe his financial circumstances had changed and he really needed the money?

Had Mr James not decided to pursue Mrs Thompson for his damages and left the matter to the County Council there would have been no court cases to force the sale of her home to recover her half of the capital in the bungalow after paying off the mortgage, while making the whole family homeless. Yes, he was awarded the damages and he had, by the documents now available to the public, promised them to the Council. He has not given the instalments he has collected to the Council.

 How is the reputation of this man regarded now? The people of Carmarthenshire have paid out thousands,ostensibly to protect his integrity and reputation ,which the document says are "essential in order for him to command respect, be able to lead and undertake his duties". however, he has gone back on a promise to donate any damages back to the County Council who generously fully funded the case he took out to obtain them - at least £40,000.

 He was present during the entire meeting where this report to fund his libel counter claim was presented and discussed. He had the opportunity to challenge Ms Rees Jones as to this undertaking, and make clear to the Councillors that it was not a binding promise by him. Surely as he was there, apparently in agreement on the report, the Councillors must have been  convinced that he truly was  going to donate any damages directly to the Council ?

Subsequently he has used the issue to persecute Mrs Thompson and has greatly increased the amount she now owes him, perfectly legally. He has put maximum interest on her debt and has forced her to engage in extra expensive court appearances rather than negotiate repayments out of court, then add his lawyers fees to her debt.

Mr James claims he had to make the statement on the Madaxeman Blog as he was invited to do so. I invite Mr James to explain why this apparently inaccurate statement, paragraph (i), was presented to the executive board? Did you change your mind, Mark , or was Linda mistaken in her description of your position?

I am waiting for your response,

. Siân Caiach

Wednesday 1 August 2018

The "Deep State" of Carmarthenshire -

The term "deep state" is used within political science to describe influential decision-making bodies believed to be within government who are relatively permanent and whose policies and long-term plans are unaffected by changing administrations. The term is often used in a critical sense vis-à-vis the general electorate to refer to the lack of influence popular democracy has on these institutions and the decisions they make as a shadow governmentsource : Wikipedia
Carmarthenshire County Hall  built on the original site of, and in the style of old Carmarthen Jail 

Carmarthenshire County Council is an elected body but widely thought to be "officer led" i.e, the civil servants  rather than the elected councillors seem to run the show. Although the political constitution of the council changes, the policy leadership seems to be firmly guided by senior officers.  Voters may chose the councillors but not the administration. Any effort to "rock the boat" and criticise the Council's policy can lead to resistance and even attack from this  very local " Deep State".
Councillors willing to collude are rewarded with positions which often enhance their salary. Councillors who interrogate the reasons for the often unusual council decisions and policies are dismissed as troublemakers.

There is little effort to disguise this process and as a County Councillor for 9 years prior to  May 2017, I was critical of this arrangement and over this period received nearly a 100 complaints against me personally, penned by the chief executive Mark Vincent James. and sent to the public services ombudsman. 

I've recently received a letter informing me that the Public Services Ombudsman has decided to take no action in respect of the matters investigated following the most recent complaints against me by Carmarthenshire County Council Chief Executive Mr Mark Vincent James C.B.E. on the basis of alleged numerous breaches of the "Councillors' Code". Mr James appears to have emphasised to  the press details of  the one issue, in his huge batch of complaints that the Ombudsman was critical of, even though he didn't wish to act on it. 

 This issue involved a junior officer sent down alone from the chief executives' office to the front desk of County Hall to deal with a symbolic "pound of flesh" demonstration. Although I was not the organiser or leader of the demonstration the Ombudman has a valid  point in that as I was present I should have asked the demonstrators to leave immediately when I saw the junior officer was very distressed, rather than asking the officer to decline the wrapped piece of meat so the group would leave. In a similar situation I would now certainly act differently and promptly.

The other 60 paragraphs of complaint with other issues brought up and the many sub clauses did not warrant any rebuke

The Complaint to the Ombudsman was made in January 2017, a few months before the Council Elections in that year. The same process was undertaken against me and my People First- Gwerin Gyntaf colleague Arthur Davies prior to the 2012 Council Elections with a couple of dozen complaints. Arthur was very badly affected by it and lost his seat in 2012. 

The ombudsman in his general annual report remarks that complaints against Councillors tend to peak before local government elections.
 This is presumably to discourage opponents from standing or blacken their reputations as the electorate can be told , quite honestly, by a rival team that Councillor X is "under investigation". I am aware of having some negative comments said about me on the doorstep implying improper conduct in 2017 and I narrowly lost my county councillor seat. 

Positively this has loss given me the time to fully take on other roles and after waiting 18/12 for a verdict the recent "no action" ruling by the Ombusdman has been a great relief. Any uncertainty can be stressful,  and facing complaints so numerous that I cannot even remember them all has been disconserting.

The vast majority of complaints under the Councillors' code of conduct are made by other Councillors, not civil servants or members of the public. It is Community Councillors rather than County Councillors which are the largest group complained about. 98% of complaints are adjudicated in less than 12 months. Both complaints to the Ombudsman concerning me took 18 months to be closed, both with no action needing to be taken. 3 years of my life under Ombudsman's investigation!.

Having a complaint made against you is stressful, even if the the majority of evidence submitted against you appears trivial or inaccurate. The Councillors Code of Conduct is open to interpretation.  Specialist legal advice is expensive and beyond my means. Lengthy complaints force you to spend a lot of time thinking about and preparing rebuttal evidence. In this case it took months even for the Ombudsman to decide which complaints to actually investigate. In the end, only 5 made the grade.

The Obudsman's advice to County Councillors is clear. Try to resolve the matter locally .
"If a County Councillor wishes to make a complaint about another County Councillor within their own authority, I expect them to first of all make their complaint to that authority’s Monitoring Officer, as it may be possible to resolve the matter locally without my involvement  "

This advice is not given to Council Officers who are complaining about a councillor.  In my case, my accuser, Mr Mark James, did not contact me to resolve these complaints. I suspect the Monitoring Officer was probably involved in drawing up the complaint which is likely to have been  prepared with advice from her County Council legal team. If you want to complain to the Ombudsman about a public service such as a school, you have to contact them, and go through the full  complaints procedure and still be not satisfied with the response before the Ombudsman even considers your complaint. A Councillor's Code of Conduct  complaint goes straight to the Ombudsman.

 A  County Council's Monitoring Officer is a paid officer with duties to the Ombudsman, usually the head of Administration and Law or equivalent and subordinate to the Chief Executive. In Carmarthenshire she is Linda Rees Jones 

 When I was a Carmarthenshire County Councillor she was instrumental, for example in dismissing my complaint  when I by chance discovered the instructions of the Chief Executive to the  IT department to covertly monitor and log  my emails. To her it was perfectly fine and legal. For the purposes of this action I would be regarded as an ordinary employee, presumably suspected of misuse of my Council Computer.. However the rules on monitoring emails of staff clearly state they should be informed.  She saw no reason to inform me of this surveillance and was clearly complicit in the whole matter.. How can you complain to the Monitoring Officer when as head of Administration she has already decided  that it is perfectly proper to monitor your email correspondence without informing you? How can you report her to herself?

I don't blame the monitoring officer, after all her job security, salary grade and career progression is largely in the hands of the Chief Executive. However, the Monitoring Officer should be independent as she represents, in theory, the Ombudsman. Where Officers superior to her, and/especially she herself is involved, she cannot be expected to be impartial.

If elections actually mattered, this man, the Plaid Cymru Group Leader , Councillor Emlyn Dole would actually be in charge. I don't think he is.

                                    Emlyn Dole "at work" in county Hall

The motivation behind the many complaints against me is,I think is clear and will examine in detail in my next blog together with more about Emlyn.

.                                                                                                           Siân Caiach