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.

THE GRANTING OF AN INDEMNITY TO THE HEAD OF PAID SERVICE.

REASONS:
(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

4 comments:

  1. Doubtless you'll be waiting a while.

    First of all, yes, I did invite Mark James to respond to my original post on Daft Arrest. He didn't HAVE to of course, I couldn't compel him - he deliberately chose to do so. As such, he should accept the result of having done so. To say he had to reply because I invited him is, I feel, a little disingenuous...

    For the record, I made a number of substantive points in my post, and asked some very specific questions of Mr. James. He seemingly avoided them all, preferring instead to make various allegations about Jacqui and her family.

    If he really HAD to reply to my post, it might have been rather nice had he chosen to reply to the actual points and questions I posed.

    For my part, I think Carmarthenshire is in a very dark place politically right now. Mr. James does not seem to see himself as accountable to either the elected members who employ him, or indeed the electorate whom they are supposed to represent. Locally, no-one seems prepared to call this guy out and deal with the issue head on.

    Worse still, this reluctance to act is perpetuated at the Welsh Assembly. I don't know the rights and wrongs of Patrica Breckman's case (though I certainly have my opinions), but one is left to wonder how someone in her position is supposed to attain a measure of justice, in a land it seems to have abandoned some time ago.

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  2. I have to agree with Martin Milan - Carmarthen Council is dark. It also doesn't help that the Welsh Government Ministers turn a blind eye. An A.M. had this to say ....'We have a problem in Wales and it's one that needs to be addressed. Wales is a small Country which means that those in positions of power and influence know each other or know of each other. This makes it difficult to challenge each others conduct'. I have known this to be absolutely true for years. I used to write in my diaries - 'I am not battling Carmarthen council, I am battling Wales'. It is a culture that has developed over many years where no-one challenges anyone or anything in case it affects somebody known to themselves or even their family. I wrote to the first Minister about this very culture and asked that it be addressed, as the consequences of this culture has directly sabotaged any chance we ever had of resolving our ordeal. In his initial response he did agree that such a culture existed and at times could prove difficult.
    To emphasise exactly what I am up against, I wrote this to the First Minister's P.S . ......" as a Minister in 2006, Carwyn Jones wrote to CCC asking questions about.....................he never received a response - my AM has never had a response to his letter to the Head of Planning dated 26th. February asking questions regarding..................... my Councillor also has written to the Leader and Deputy leader on the same subject, eleven weeks ago, and has never received a response. He has asked more questions of the Head of Planning but won't receive a response.
    "I have asked an array of the most valid justified and pertinent questions over the course of the past year, that any member of the public or any person in an official position would ask, and have never had answers. I can ask and ask but the truth is, questions regarding my situation will never be answered (truthfully) because of the shabby deals..............."
    "Perhaps the First Minister would like to try and get answers where others have failed? The culture I wrote to him about, is that when those in positions of power and influence know each other, they turn a blind eye to each other's nefarious activities. If no-one gets hurt in the process that is bad enough, but when two peoples lives are totally destroyed in that process, then that is criminal and unforgivable".
    Jake Morgan (Deputy Executive) had this to say....... 'Mrs Breckman can keep writing to us - forever'! A shocking admission of the very culture I wrote to Carwyn Jones about!
    I have asked the FM how on earth an ordinary member of the public can ever have problems resolved when the Chief Executive refuses to answer any questions from me, my AM or my councillor. He threw away the rule book long ago. All he has to do is nothing and nobody challenges his conduct not even the first Minister. A culture where corruption thrives. If rules, regulations and procedures were followed my ordeal would have been over in 2005. Ordinary people are powerless and Jake Morgan was correct, I can keep on asking questions, but will never receive answers, and Mark James and the Leader Cll Dole will continue to ignore me my A.M and my councillor, and Ministers along with the first Minister will continue to turn a blind eye. Until this culture is admitted things will never change.

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  3. I agree with Martin and Tricia. Carmarthenshire is run by Senior Local Government Civil Servants in the same manner as the colonialism of the old British Empire. Democratic representation of the local people as a whole is largely lacking. The organisation appears run for the benefit of a small minority. The same "friends", companies and organisations surface regularly to be "partners" in the great Carmarthenshire projects.The profits and benefits are for these chosen ones, not for us.
    As Tricia says this is not just a problem in Carmarthenshire but across much of Wales. Complaints are treated with contempt. The culture of Welsh Government at all levels is already corrupted by its devotion to Unionism, Colonialism and the goals of endless control and exploitation of a people who, in their view, clearly don't deserve a future of good governance, comfort and prosperity.

    The libel issue all started when Carmarthenshire's Chief Executive Officer posted a comment on Martin Milan's blog.

    I am not aware of a single CEO of a local Authority who has written such a vicious and inaccurate comment on a blog, ostensibly "on behalf of the Authority", but not apparently with the approval of the Elected Council Leader. When he copied it to all members I had no idea of the accuracy of the nasty comments about the Thompson Family but I was disturbed by the inaccuracy of his statements on the filming of council meetings in Wales, something which was already happening. being planned, or trialled in other Welsh areas. I replied to him to this effect and copied the reply to all councillors.

    As I later explained to the Ombudsman's investigators, defending his massive number of complaints against me [which eventually came to nothing,] from this point onward I was frequently treated with disdain and harassment by Mr James. Luckily I have a thick skin and no intention of leaving this area.

    Unfortunately the Plaid Group on the Council, desperate for power as they were the largest group of Councillors and who felt that getting into favour with Mark was their only path to power,supported him against me. [Mr James seems to have helped organise every ruling council coalition]. I left Plaid.

    I believe that the blog comment was his and his alone, and never approved by the Executive Board or Council Leader prior to submission. Years of misery for the Thompson's and hundreds of thousands of public money just to hide this one stupid mistake. Compliance in all this by the majority of Carmarthenshire Councillors is, I believe, due to a combination of fear of Mr James' anger and desire to become his chosen pets.

    Time to clean up Wales and become a proper country!

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  4. Well said Sian, your post and comment are spot on.
    You are correct, there was no reference to elected members, not until after the vicious and inaccurate missive had gone into cyberspace 'on behalf of the authority'. And, incidentally, in his rage and haste, Mr James didn't even bother checking out who Martin, and the Madaxeman blog, were. He said, and I quote, it was "someone...I believe was in the gallery at last council".
    Martin resides in, and blogs from, the north of England and has never been anywhere near County Hall.

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