County Hall showdown ends in legal stand-off over 'unlawful' claims against Carmarthenshire county council
3:47pm Friday 27th September 2013 in News
TODAY'S County Hall showdown between Carmarthenshire county councillors and members of the Wales National Audit has ended in "a Mexican legal stand-off", in the words of one member.
The local authority's Audit Committee were meeting auditors following Wednesday's disclosure that two transactions involving chief executive Mark James were deemed to be unlawful.
Members were told that, as both sides hold conflicting views, the unresolved issues were now being placed in the hands of solicitors.
The matters under scrutiny are the granting of a £23,217 indemnity to pay for Mr James's legal costs in his libel case against Towy Valley blogger Jacqui Thompson plus renumeration totalling £16,353 paid to the chief executive in lieu of employer pension contributions.
Finance Director Roger Jones told committee members that the council had only received the views of national auditor Anthony Barratt "a week yesterday" and had not had time to resolve the issues raised.
Although the auditors agreed to sign off the council's accounts as an accurate record they stressed the two queries had to be resolved.
Vice-chairman Giles Morgan said the two transactions in question had not been "hidden away" and were there for "all and sundry" to see. "There's no cover-up here," he added, "it all transparent. "This is an excellent audit report – the state of the accounts are healthy."
But Cllr Morgan was swiftly taken to task by Llanelli councillor Bill Thomas.
"I don’t agree," he said. "If you’ve got a barrel of healthy apples and one bad one I’m not going to say that’s a healthy barrel of apples."
And referring to the amount of £16,533 he said: "If this is a tax dodge did we pay for a consultant’s opinion? If so, that could also be considered unlawful along with any expenditure relating to officers and the time they spent on this matter.
“It’s not just the money that’s been spent – it’s the time. A public officer is paid from the public purse."
Cllr Alun Lenny agreed questions had to be raised about how the two allegedly unlawful transactions came about.
And, in a clear move to distance themselves from the decisions which led to the transactions, members objected to a council minute stating: "The council considers both items to be lawful" – and voted unanimously to change it to: "The executive board acting on behalf of the authority considers both items to be lawful."
"The auditors identified the council as having made these decisions," said Cllr Thomas. He added that he was not putting his name to anything that could turn out to be against the law.
"This is just the beginning and I’m not very happy at all."
Clearly frustrated that crucial questions could not be addressed, committee chairman David Jenkins observed: "We seem to have a legal Mexican stand-off here which will have to run its course."
Speaking after the meeting, audit committee member Calum Higgins called for an independent investigation into the matter.
“There needs to be an investigation on the basis that it will either clear the council’s name or resolve the issue one way or another,” he said.
“The public are asking questions and we need to establish how those decisions were taken and what kind of advice was sought.
“I was disappointed the auditors were unable or unwilling to explain how they came to those conclusions and could not give us more information.
"The longer this drags on the more damaging it will be for Carmarthenshire county council.”
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