Playing for time

Last week’s audit committee agreed to support my Notice of Motion calling for PCC to lodge a complaint against the police regarding the delay in concluding the investigation into irregular payments on the Pembroke Dock Commercial Property Grants Scheme (CPGS).

It is approaching five years since I first wrote about the (CPGS) in Pembroke Dock and coming up to four since PCC handed a thick dossier containing details of irregular payments to Dyfed-Powys Police.

These irregular payments were all made to developer Cathal McCosker, or companies under his control.

It was encouraging to see that members of the audit committee rejected a proposal by IPG member Mike James that the council should ask Chief Executive Ian Westley to have a quiet word with the Chief Constable.

Cllr James’ proposal was based on a paragraph at the end of the officer’s report to the committee which stated:

“However, the Council does enjoy a good relationship with Dyfed Powys Police, and other options may be preferable to explore, such as the Chief Executive speaking again to the Chief Constable, or requesting an update at the next Audit Committee.” 

There are several reasons why a cosy chat between the top men in the two organisations is not a good idea.

For a start, the council is not a completely disinterested bystander in all this.

Back in 2013 when all this kicked off, council officers made strenuous efforts to sweep the matter under the carpet.

After reading my article of 25 April 2013, Cllr Michael Williams brought the matter to the audit committee’s attention and council officers produced a report for the meeting in September 2013 that concluded:

“Internal Audit has shared its findings with the Council’s Monitoring Officer who is satisfied that there is no evidence of maladministration or non-compliance with the governance arrangements relevant to the specific schemes or of any lack of competence in officers concerned with the administration of the schemes.”

As whitewashes go this was laying it on with a trowel.

Also before this meeting of the audit committee was a “frequently asked questions” document prepared by the council’s European Office.

“Given the publicity the CPGS has recently received, the European Office has also prepared a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document that was published on the Authority’s internet site on the 4th June 2013. The European Manager stated “The FAQs seek to explain and clarify aspects of the scheme where misunderstanding has led to unwarranted negative publicity.”

This lengthy document included the following:

Q: Can this grant scheme fund work to residential as well as business properties?
A: No. This grant scheme is strictly only for commercial properties. Many properties in town centres are mixed use, often being in commercial use on the ground floor but in residential use on upper floors. In these cases no internal works in parts of the building used for (or intended to be used for) residential use will be funded by the grant. We will fund external works to upper floors even if they are in residential use if they help to improve the street scene, because this contributes to improving the look of the town centre for businesses.

Q: Has any property ever received a grant for flats or for a house of multiple occupation?
A: No, this has never happened through this grant scheme. Such works have always been ineligible. Sometimes property owners carry out residential works at the same time that builders are working on commercial parts of the building but this is entirely at their own cost. In fact the Council encourages this, in order to improve people’s accommodation, although we cannot and do not make any financial contribution to these costs.
[My emphasis throughout.]

This particular piece of self-serving propaganda would come back to haunt the council because once I had overcome their attempts to deny me access to the files (see below) I was able to show that tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of grants had been paid for the sort of residential development that the document claimed had “never happened through this grant scheme”.

My first effort to obtain information on this subject was to arrange a visit to the European Office near the Cleddau Bridge in the summer of 2013 to inspect documents relating to these projects.

Unfortunately when I opened the files I found they had been stripped of all content of a financial nature – every piece of paper containing anything with a £ sign in front of it had been carefully removed.

I later learned that this was on the say-so of the, then, Monitoring Officer Laurence Harding – relying on our old friend “commercial confidentiality”.

I then turned my attention to the Freedom of Information process but this was largely unsuccessful because all the council would provide were copies of Bills of Quantities (BoQs) with all the financial information redacted.

However, by matching the quantities in the BoQs with the drawings in the planning file, I was able to identify certain irregularities that were worthy of further investigation.

For instance, at 25 Dimond Street there was a serious mismatch between the area of rendering shown on the drawings and that in the BoQs.

Coronation School was of particular interest because someone had carelessly left an unedited BoQ in the public audit inspection file and, armed with a copy and a long lens camera provided by Cllr Paul Miller, I was able to obtain pictures that seemed to indicate that, contrary to what had been paid for, parts of the roof at Coronation School hadn’t been reslated.

Either that or the roofer was an expert in the art of lichen-splicing.

The council was also kind enough to supply me with details of the total amount of grant paid out under the three headings: architectural detail (90%) structural repairs (70%) and refurbishment of retail space (40%).

For 29 Dimond Street (then the Paul Sartori charity shop) the grant for retail space came to £21,000 and thanks to Miss Tate’s expert tutelage I was able to calculate that some £53,000 must have been allocated to doing up the shop.

A visit to Pembroke Dock and a quick inspection of the premises convinced me that this was a gross overestimate, though I did come away with two very smart designer-label T-shirts for a quid apiece.

This was all sufficient to persuade me that my suspicions were not without substance, so I put down a NoM for the meeting of council in October 2013 which called for all documents relating to these projects to be made available for inspection by members.

This NoM was accompanied by a lengthy submission setting out my concerns.

However, when this came before the Cabinet, a report was presented which purported to show that the concerns expressed in my supporting submission were completely without foundation.

One piece of evidence consisted of photographs of the inside of the roof at Coronation School Pembroke Dock which appeared to show that, contrary to what I had written in my submission and on my website, the whole of the roof had been reslated on new felt and battens.

Furthermore the report listed a string of official bodies including the Wales Audit Office who had given these projects a clean bill of health.

The report concluded:

“It would seem that the concerns expressed had arisen in large part due to misunderstandings [my emphasis] about the operation of the CPGS.

There was every reason, based on the assurance provided by the aforementioned external auditing bodies, to consider that the procedures and operation of the grant scheme were both sound and effective.”

As can be seen, any successful prosecution is going to leave some very important people with egg all over their faces.

And note how it was all down to my inability to understand how the system worked!

Based on this presentation, and their own observations following a visit to Pembroke Dock in the company of David Davies – the officer charged with supervising the property grant projects – leader Jamie Adams and cabinet member David Pugh took the opportunity to brand me a liar when my NoM came before full council on 12 December 2013.

Pugh was particularly scathing saying that “The truth isn’t on his agenda“.

However, it turned out that Mr Davies had stuffed our two cabinet members’ heads with false information and it was not long before he was treading that well-worn path: early retirement on health grounds.

In the event, council decided to leave this issue in the hands of the audit committee and at its meeting on 20 January 2014 it resolved to establish a data room where audit committee members could inspect documents relating to these contracts.

After a long and sometimes acrimonious battle with the then Monitoring Officer, Laurence Harding, I was able to convince him that the law allowed all members of the council to access the information in the data room.

Within a short time Cllr Jacob Williams and I had unearthed evidence of malpractice in the tender process for 10 Meyrick Street which persuaded PCC’s director of finance Mark Lewis and head of internal audit Jon Haswell that there was evidence of irregular practice and a dossier was presented to the police on 8 April 2014.

A couple of days later, PCC received a letter from Mr Cathal McCosker in which he offered to repay, within one year, all the grant money he had receive in respect of CPGS in Pembroke Dock (£180,000) and to forego the grant due on 50 Dimond Street, then nearing completion, (£129,000) – £309,000 in all.

For reasons that are not immediately clear to me, this offer still hasn’t been taken up, though in the early summer of 2014 WEFO demanded that PCC repay the £309,000 grant funding it had received for the five McCosker projects in Pembroke Dock.

Recently, my attention has been drawn to an email dated 17 January 2014 from one of the council’s quantity surveyors to the internal audit team.

There are several claims in this email with which I would take issue, but, for the purposes of this post, I will concentrate on the statement on page 2:

This referred to an invoice for electrical work which clearly indicates it is for “1-4 rear of Paul Sartori” i.e. the sort of residential development that had never been eligible for, or received, grant aid.

Note: that while VAT rate is stated as 5% it is actually charged at 20%.

I will have more to say on this subject in a later post.

F13 is the code given to this item in both the grant evaluation document dated February 2012 and the final account dated October 2012.

As can be seen from an examination of the final account (below) the QS’s assumption was wrong because F13 attracted a grant of £3,900.

So, while it was obvious to the QS that work to “flats 1-4” wasn’t eligible for grant aid (see FAQ document above) it doesn’t seem to have been obvious to whoever it was in the European Office who signed off the final account including a £3,920 grant for this work.

Rather strange you might think, considering that officers of the European Office produced both the FAQ document and the final account.

To cap it all, they had the bare-faced cheek to suggest that it was me who “misunderstood” how the system worked.

As council officers knew of this irregular payment in January 2014, it is difficult to understand why no action was taken until late in February 2014 when Jacob and I turned up evidence of malpractice in the tender process for 10 Meyrick Street.

Below is an extract from the final account for 29 Dimond Street (then Paul Sartori charity shop.)

The item that the QS assumed would not be eligible for grant aid is highlighted in red.

Unfortunately the scan is of rather poor quality though you should be able to make out “(excluding retail space)” in respect of items E14, E16 and E21 and you may wonder why, if it wasn’t for the retail space, sums of £207.04, £128.00 and £386.40 appear in the column “Total award” which is the posh term for grant.

Indeed E6-E21 are all part of the refurbishment of the four bedsits to the rear of the property, all of which were eligible for grant aid, so the grant of £3,000 for these items is hard to reconcile with the FAQ document.

So why it has taken the police almost four years to decide whether these discrepancies are due to incompetence or criminal behaviour is something of a mystery.

Indeed in May 2016 a senior police officer told the audit committee that the police had concluded that no council officer was suspected of any criminality which, considering nobody has been disciplined either, gives some indication of the degree of incompetence thought acceptable in the Kremlin on Cleddau.

So, while I’m perfectly happy to accept that PCC’s present chief executive played no part in these machinations, it must be remembered that the county council is a body that exists through time regardless of the personalities in charge.

Clearly, PCC and DPP have close relationships over such matters as child protection, road safety etc, but when it comes to a criminal investigation PCC’s status is no different to that of anyone else.

Indeed, with regard to a criminal investigation where the conduct of council officers may come under the spotlight, any such “cosy chat” would be capable of being interpreted as an attempt to pervert the course of justice.

Clearly PCC is an interested party because if there is a successful prosecution PCC’s reputation is likely to suffer when people start to ask how all this could happen under council officers’ noses.

There is also a possibility (probability?) that defendants in any such case might blow the whistle on council officers’ involvement.

The need to avoid reputational damage may explain the authority’s strenuous attempts to effect a cover-up as detailed at the top of this piece.

For all the above reasons a private conversation between the top people from these two public bodies would not be appropriate.