What a difference a decade makes

For those who like round numbers, I am pleased to report that counsel’s opinion on the grants fraud in Pembroke Dock that recently landed on PCC’s desk is dated 12 December 2023, exactly ten years to the day from the infamous council meeting during which I was branded a liar by sundry members of the corrupt Pembrokeshire Independent Political Group.

In the lead-up to that December 2013 council meeting, which considered my Notice of Motion calling for members to be given access to information on these various grant schemes, the issue had been before both the audit committee and cabinet.

In September 2013, audit committee members were told:

4.3 Commentary from the Authority’s Monitoring Officer
4.3.1 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.

When the matter reached Cabinet on 2 December 2013:

“The procedures used to administer the CPGS [Commercial Property Grant Scheme] were approved by the Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO) prior to the grant scheme beginning to operate. Minor amendments made since then have also been approved by WEFO.

However, there have been concerns expressed, initially in a series of anonymous articles and since April 2013 by Councillor R M Stoddart that the CPGS is procedurally flawed, and that the Council is at risk of fraud.

By the time that these concerns were raised the CPGS, and the wider Pembroke and Pembroke Dock Regeneration Scheme, had already been through a number of in depth audits by four different auditors:
• WEFO
• Wales Audit Office (WAO)
• Welsh Government European Funds Audit Team (EFAT)
• The Directorate General for Regional and Urban Policy, European Commission.
None of these found any shortcomings.

The concerns expressed have been taken seriously leading to a review of the operation of the CPGS by the Council’s Internal Audit Service. This review, which was reported to the meeting of the Council’s Audit Committee on 23 September 2013 found no cause for concern.

Before that meeting, Councillor Stoddart circulated a letter to Audit Committee Members setting out his concerns.

It would seem that the concerns expressed have arisen in large part due to misunderstandings about the operation of the CPGS. There is every reason, based on the assurance provided by the aforementioned external auditing bodies, to consider that the procedures and operation of the grant scheme are both sound and effective.”

So it was all a result of poor Old Grumpy being too dim to understand this complicated scheme devised by clever council officers.

Emboldened by these official reassurances, members of the ruling Independent Political Group were keen to put the boot in when the matter arrived at full council on 12 December 2013 for final determination.

As it happens this was the first ever meeting of the council to be webcast, so readers can hear for themselves what these Poundshop Torquemadas had to say (40 minutes et seq).

Leading the charge was Cabinet member for town centre development Cllr David Pugh, who had been on a fact-finding mission to Pembroke Dock in the company of his leader, Cllr Jamie Adams.

After casting doubt on some of my claims he came out with all guns blazing.

Here are some extracts from his speech:

“So whether this is a deliberate untruth, or sheer incompetence on his behalf in not checking the facts, I’ll let you all decide.”

“Now we come to the main thrust of this smear campaign which has been directed at one developer, his agent, architect and one building company.”

“He asserts that the developer has colluded with all concerned to receive higher grant funding than anyone else – hence the assumption there must be fraud.

“Having received the reports that refute all his arguments, Cllr Stoddart then changes tack and asserts that the grant schemes rules are flawed and that the council has wrongly interpreted them.”

“I know he 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.”

“There are many more spurious claims made – for none of which has he produced any evidence, purely conjecture and speculation.”

“But, then, getting at the truth is not on his agenda.”

“I have no doubt that further allegations will appear on his website though I doubt he will ever admit to his errors or mistakes.”

“Cllr Stoddart reminds me of Don Quixote, the fictional character whose madness drove him to see enemies in everyone and ended up tilting at windmills.”

“I trust you will join me in condemning Cllr Stoddart’s actions which have not only taken up an enormous amount of time and resource, but have maligned a developer, his architect and builder, officers and members of this council.”

For a full account of what Pugh had to say together with my detailed rebuttal of his lies and misrepresentations, see here.

The great shame is that the voters of Kilgetty decided to dispose of David Pugh’s services at the 2022 election, so the audit committee won’t be able to compel him to explain himself when it resumes its investigation.

I also had to endure a lecture on constitutional propriety by, of all people, Cllr Jamie Adams, and a tutorial on Freedom of Information and Copyright law from Rob “Robocop” Summons, and the final indignity: being told by  Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse that I should abandon my policy of “never letting the facts get in the way of a good story”.

Unfortunately, Squirehouse, as he was affectionately known, having passed over to the other side has been deprived of the opportunity to apologise for wrongly accusing me of being a liar.

I have already posted a piece on the lies Pugh and Adams told about their visit to the attic at the former Coronation School Pembroke Dock.

There is one other little matter to deal with before we move to the present and that is the blacking-out on the last page of my submission in support of my NoM.

What authority the council had for doing this is not clear, so, for clarity’s sake, here is the bit you were not allowed to see:

“It is my view that there has been systematic malpractice on these contracts with grants claimed, and paid, for work which has patently not been done.

That malpractice can only be explained by collusion between the grant applicant, architect and builder; designed to maximize the amount of grant claimed. The information that I already have, from documents obtained during the public audit inspection, provides clear evidence of over-measurement of items in the Bills of Quantities and massive over-pricing, which must cast doubt on the integrity of the tendering process, which, it must be remembered, was carried out by the architect on behalf of the grant applicant.”

I have included that because it is in broad agreement with what the redacted parts of counsel’s recent opinion has to say.

As for the unredacted sections, they should be viewed in the context of what was said back in 2013 (see above).

Independent counsel found that:

2. The fraud was extremely unsophisticated and simplistic. It seems clear to me that there was a fraud. It seems to me that there is a case against [redacted] in this regard.

But, despite the fact that there is fraud, counsel didn’t recommend PCC should pursue a prosecution because many of the weaknesses in the prosecution case emanate from the conduct of the council and its staff:

25. The allegation that the offence was caused, facilitated or enabled by complicity (at worst) or gross incompetence (at best) of persons working for Pembrokeshire County Council causes very significant issues in this authority taking a prosecution in my view. I advise in the strongest terms that it would not be appropriate for Pembrokeshire County Council to prosecute with such allegations inevitably going to be raised by the defence.

26. These issues are compounded by allegations of evidence (a hard drive) being lost [by a council officer].

Delay

Whatever else may be said about this case, the fact that nobody has, or will, be prosecuted means it will go down in history as a masterpiece in the art of cover-ups.

Finally I should mention the comment below that appeared on the Western Telegraph website’s coverage of this topic:

Oldgrumpypembrokeshire
14th March 9:20 pm
User ID: 2360705
A lot of public money wasted by Councillor Stoddart, on a barrister who has come to the same conclusion as the CPS . Why waste all that money which could have been better utilised throughout the county ? Terrible waste of public money.

I have a good idea who ‘Oldgrumpypembrokeshire’ might be, but I’ll hang fire until I have more information.

What I would point out is that the CPS declined to prosecute because the evidential test had not been met while independent counsel clearly states that while the evidential test is met, there is a failure of the public interest test because the frauds had been “facilitated or enabled by complicity (at worst) or gross incompetence (at best) of persons working for Pembrokeshire County Council…”

In any case, as a result of me exposing this fraud, the developer has paid back some £309,000 in grants so, whichever way you look at it, the public sector balance sheet is showing a healthy profit.