Golden goodbye

Pembrokeshire County Council has voted narrowly to give its chief executive a big pay-off.

Whether that decision was correct is not a black and white question.

Almost universally, the comments in the Western Telegraph of those who voted in favour compared the cost of the settlement with the cost of carrying on down the disciplinary route.

And this is a fair comparison to make because there was clearly nothing to be gained by pursuing Mr Parry-Jones unless there was a reasonable prospect that the outcome would be dismissal for gross misconduct.

The alternatives available can be broadly categorised as:

1. Pay up and be done with it, which has the advantage of finality and certainty.

2. Carry on down the disciplinary route which could lead to three possible results.

(a) Mr Parry Jones turns out to be blameless, in which case the council is faced with an even bigger bill than it is at present, plus having to pay his salary for the duration of the process and the costs of a Designated Independent Person (DIP) and any legal advisors engaged.

(b) DIP criticises his conduct, but falls short of a finding of gross misconduct, in which case the bill would be large but not so large as in (a), or

(c) DIP finds gross misconduct leading to instant dismissal. Even this is not cost free because while the disciplinary process is in train the chief executive’s salary has to be paid, plus the fees of the DIP and any legal advisors.

However, it is not the case as Cllr Mark Edwards told the Telegraph: “There was strong advice that we didn’t have a case, we would have squandered money. It’s politics – it would have been the easiest thing in the world to vote against this, but it would have cost the county £200,000 more.”

There is a world of difference between “would” and “could”.

All those in favour cited the legal advice in front of the council, though whether they had actually read it is another matter, because what it says is:

“If the DIP process is taken to its conclusion there is the possibility that the final cost to the council will be lower than the proposed settlement costs. This would also have the advantage of demonstrating an independent investigation has been undertaken into the allegations against the chief executive.”

There are two elements to this statement: the “possibility” of a favourable outcome for the council and the “advantage” of justice being done.

“Possibility” is not the sort of vague terminology one expects to find in expensive legal advice, stretching as it does from small probability to near certainty. Obviously, which end of the scale the facts fall has a profound effect on the chosen path.

As for justice, that didn’t seem to feature very strongly in the consideration of those who voted for the deal.

Let me pose a hypothetical question: what would be the right course of action if we knew for certain that the DIP process would have cost exactly the same as the settlement and that it would have led to a finding of gross misconduct?

Then you get justice at no extra cost.

Suppose that the DIP process (the costs of which are not recoverable by the council) cost a £100,000 more than the settlement and led to a finding of gross misconduct.

Then justice would have set the taxpayer back £100,000. Would it be worth it?

Well, that depends on what value you place on justice.

This is not a trivial question because every day in the courts there are cases where justice costs more than the crime. Take, for instance, someone who steals a £10 bottle of vodka from Tesco.

At a conservative estimate, to bring such a case to court would cost £1,000 in police time and legal fees. But nobody would suggest that society is better served if the government sends Tesco a cheque for a tenner and forgets about the crime. That is not to say that cost is not an issue – merely that justice can’t simply be measured in terms of money.

Clearly, the scales are tipped one way or the other by the “possibilty” of a successful prosecution. Which brings us to the evidence in the case of the chief executive.

This was provided to the disciplinary committee by Cllrs Mark Edwards and Peter Morgan. And, as those who voted for the settlement did so on the basis that this evidence didn’t amount to much, it seems only fair that the public who are picking up the tab should know what it is.

This has its origins in a an amendment to a motion by Cllr Paul Miller that the council should take action to recover the pension payments received by the chief executive and another officer which had been deemed “unlawful” by the Wales Audit Office.

All the legal advice was that recovery would be problematic and expensive – a view which I shared. Then up popped the author of that other website and proposed an amendment that the two officers should be invited to pay back the money voluntarily.

This attracted widespread support – including eight members of the IPPG.

There was a sting in the tail because the officers’ responses were to be reported to the next meeting in July when Cllr Miller’s original proposal would still be on the table. Cllrs Peter Morgan and Mark Edwards were among the IPPG members who voted in favour.

We can let Cllr Edwards take up the story as told to the disciplinary committee on September 29:

“I had a phone call from Peter Morgan.

Rob Lewis had been on to him. The chief executive was furious about the way we had voted on the pensions issue.

Rob Lewis was suggesting we go and see the chief executive to smooth things out.

He suggested next morning between 7.30 and 8 am.

The chief executive was not there. Ben Pykett [assistant chief executive] called us into his office and told us the chief executive was expecting us, but had been called away to another meeting.

We were told to come back later.

Later that day we were in the canteen when Ben Pykett came down and told us the Chief Executive was ready to see us. As we were standing outside his office Brian Hall came out.

The chief executive came out. I could see he wasn’t happy.

Peter Morgan made a mock rugby tackle on him to break the ice.

The chief executive pointed for us to go in.

He said “I didn’t fucking expect to be stabbed in the back by you pair of bastards.”

He said “I’m not paying that ten fucking thousand pounds back – that’s my wife’s pension. How would you like it if I came into your business and took your pension away?”

He spoke for 15 minutes about the legal issues surrounding the pension payments.

He gave us a very convincing case and asked if we were sorry about the way we had voted.

We said that had we had all the information we might have voted differently

He said we “had played into the hands of the two most evil bastards in Pembrokeshire: Mike Stoddart and the media .

“He completely lost it, he saw red.”

He said that the reason Anthony Barrett [the Wales Audit Office official who had deemed the pension payments unlawful] had done this “was to make a name for himself and get promotion”.

“He knew the media would latch on to it – he [Mr Barrett] was well known for that.”

He said Cllr Paul Miller [Labour group leader] was “motivated by jealousy because he had been a close family friend and his son was in school with him and he was brighter than Paul.”

Peter Morgan told the committee that the chief executive had told them “I’ve been at home for the last six months waiting for the police to come knocking on the door”.

He told them that he had his brother, a solicitor, on standby.

“I had it in my mind he might be locked up” Cllr Morgan said.

Cllr Edwards told the committee “He made a very convincing case. I felt sorry for him, it had an effect on me.”

“I went into the meeting with an open mind and I was surprised with his reaction. He was mad.”

Cllr Morgan said he agreed with everything that Cllr Edwards had told the committee.”

Now, there is more than one way of looking at this:

1. These two were making it all up.

2. They were telling the truth, but such behaviour by the chief executive falls short of gross misconduct.

3. They were telling the truth and such behaviour amounts to gross misconduct.

Which option you take will determine how you evaluate the “the possibility that the final cost to the council will be lower than the proposed settlement costs.”

My own view is that there is prima facie evidence of an attempt to influence two elected members in the way they might vote at a future meeting of council on a matter in which the chief executive had a clear pecuniary interest. And that that should have been investigated by a DIP.

That’s not to mention the alleged bullying.

It would seem to follow that those who voted for the settlement must have opted for either 1. or 2.

On the other hand, members of the IPPG, once described to me by a colleague at the Mercury as the “political wing of the Chief Officers’ Management Board”, probably see nothing much wrong in the chief executive trying to put political pressure on elected members.

There are other strange aspects to this affair, including the fact that the settlement was agreed between the leader and Mr Parry-Jones before the disciplinary committee met on October 6 and decided to refer the matter to the DIP.

This disciplinary committee is interesting because, with me having resigned and Cllr David Lloyd on holiday, the IPPG had an 8-5 majority.

It seems that two of the IPPG members (Cllrs Michael John and Wynne Evans) hadn’t read the script because, despite being steered in the opposite direction, they were part of the 7-6 majority that resolved to refer the matter to the DIP.

So what do you make of Cllr John’s statement to the Western Telegraph:

“Having sat through several meetings of the panel, and with the strong legal advice we were given by our legal team, I was not confident that the evidence was strong enough to prove a case which would lead to outright dismissal.

The alternative disciplinary route would incur additional high costs, and a process which could take some 6-12 months, after which we could be instructed to negotiate for a mutual parting, basically where we are now.

To take this action would in effect be a gamble with public money which I was not prepared to take.”

So why was he prepared to take this “gamble with public money” on 6 October, but not on the sixteenth?

Ten days, it seems, is long time in politics!