Vanishing act

Back in September last year, I wrote about the efforts of Plaid Cymru AM Simon Thomas to find out what was going on with regard to irregular payments to Mr Cathal McCosker under the Commercial Property Grant Scheme (CPGS) in Pembroke Dock (see Cover-up).

In response to his questions, Mr Thomas received a letter from Welsh Minister Lesley Griffiths in which she passed off the problem as some sort of administrative failure:

“The Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO) investigation found the council’s procurement procedures were not followed and there was insufficient evidence to support the expenditure claimed.”

The Minister’s letter concluded:

“Throughout the investigation WEFO worked closely with PCC and the police and going forward I understand the police and the council may continue to work together on specific issues. However these do not form part of the Commercial Property Grants Scheme (CPGS), or any other EU funded scheme led by the council and so it would be inappropriate for the Welsh Government to comment further at this time.”

Old Grumpy found this difficult to understand because in June 2014 three officers from WEFO led by Sian Gill travelled down to Liddeston from Cardiff to discuss my concerns about Mr McCosker’s five projects in Pembroke Dock.

Indeed, I have copies of the final accounts for these projects which specifically refer to them as being funded by the WEFO sponsored CPGS.

At the time I speculated that there had been a rewriting of history that would have done credit to Winston Smith in Orwell’s Ministry of Truth (see Cover-up).

Now the Pembrokeshire Herald has obtained a copy of an internal PCC memo dated 21 July 2014 which casts some interesting light on the subject:

To let you all know, Sian Gill of WEFO has been here most of today and will be back tomorrow, working through all the CPGS files with the exception of those relating to McCosker properties (which are excluded as we are moving them from the claims anyway so they’re no longer of interest to WEFO). She has examined just over half the files and found nothing to cause her any concern.

Roughly translated, “Moving them from the claims anyway” appears to mean that, the council having returned the £309,000 to WEFO that was allocated by the council to McCosker projects, these projects were now being treated as if they never existed.

This is rather like being caught leaving Tesco with an unpaid-for bottle of whisky concealed about your person and being told that if you hand it back nothing more will come of it.

Good luck with that!

I have also obtained a copy of a letter from WEFO dated 29 July 2014 which appears to seal the deal as set out in the above memo.

After reading WEFO’s analysis of the shambles that passed for PCC’s administration of the scheme (see below), it is difficult to suppress a chuckle when I remember that, during his intemperate attack on me at the council meeting in December 2013, Cabinet member David Pugh said:

“I know he [Old Grumpy] claims a much higher level of expertise in most matters, but here I will take the opinion of our highly regarded and experienced European funding team over his any day.”

So here is WEFO’s opinion, written just one week after the council’s move-along-nothing-to-see-here memo, of the way these “highly regarded” council experts had administered the scheme.

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However the letter continues:

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Of course, you may wonder why, if, as the Minister told Simon Thomas AM that: “…these do not form part of the Commercial Property Grants Scheme (CPGS), or any other EU funded scheme led by the council and so it would be inappropriate for the Welsh Government to comment further at this time,” WEFO felt the need to report them to the European Commission as irregular.

None of that prevented the council’s European department from looking on the bright side.

An internal memo from around the same time asserts:

“However, we are not aware of any fraud, or allegations of fraud, regarding 25 and 27 Dimond Street and therefore we have not referred these properties to the police.

“Sian [Gill, of WEFO] remained concerned that the refusal of Mr McCosker to provide copies of bank statements was ‘suspicious’ but he has already provided an explanation for this and the builder and agent have both confirmed they were paid”. [NB The council’s quotation marks around the word suspicious.

To take these in reverse order, the confirmation of the builder and agent must be looked at in light of WEFO’s letter which states: “Procurement procedures had weaknesses that allowed the possibility of collusion and fraud” or, as Mandy Rice-Davies put it: “They would say that, wouldn’t they!”

Mr McCosker’s “explanation” is contained in his letter of 10 April 2014 and consists of a series of feeble excuses as to why he shouldn’t provide his bank statements as proof that the builder had been paid.

What I can reveal is that, in order to address his concerns about details of his bank accounts falling into the wrong hands (mine), Sian Gill had offered to travel to his home in Oxfordshire to inspect them on a strictly confidential basis.

For whatever reason, he preferred to pay back the £180,000 he had already received and forgo another £120,000 that was due on 50 Dimond Street rather than take up Ms Gill’s generous offer, so no wonder she was “suspicious”.

As for there being no allegations of fraud on 25 and 27 Dimond Street that may have been because the final accounts for those two projects were drawn up long after I started to write about the subject in April 2013.

What is noticeable is that both came out well below the original estimates.

For the record, the final costs for 27 Dimond Street (original figures approved by Cabinet in brackets) were: Total project cost £118,000 (£224,000) grant £36,884 (£70,413) and No 25 total cost £92,000 (£227,000) and grant £27,000 (£64,000).

One of the biggest deductions at No. 27 was the omission of £14,000 (70% grant – £10,000) for a new roof after it was realised that the existing roof had been reslated in the recent past.

As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of construction could see this by standing on the pavement on the other side of the street, you might wonder why it was included in the first place.

And you have to wonder why the works authorised by an officer of the council as being necessary to bring these two buildings up to standard, and nodded through by Cabinet, were estimated to cost roughly twice as much as those actually carried out.

Unfortunately we might never know the answer to that question because, in keeping with standard public sector practice in these situations, the member of the highly regarded and experienced European funding team responsible for signing off these grants was shuffled off into early retirement on health grounds.