Council facing £70,000 audit office bill, claim Plaid

South Wales Guardian: COUNTING THE COST: Carmarthenshire county council could be facing a bill of around £70,000 for challenging reports by the Wales Audit Office into unlawful payments. COUNTING THE COST: Carmarthenshire county council could be facing a bill of around £70,000 for challenging reports by the Wales Audit Office into unlawful payments.

Plaid Cymru has claimed that Carmarthenshire tax-payers could be facing a £70,000 bill for the two Wales Audit Office (WAO) public interest reports issued in relation to unlawful payments made by the local authority.

In a statement issued this afternoon (Friday), a Plaid Cymru spokesman claimed a meeting of Carmarthenshire county council’s audit committee was told earlier in the day that the cost to the authority “could be in the in the region of £70,000”.

The council is understood to have estimated the bill to be around £50,000.

However, a WAO spokesman, contacted by the Guardian, refused to put any figure on the amount, saying that the total cost was yet to be finalised.

“In the appointed auditor’s update report he advised the audit committee that there would be additional fees arising out of the two reports in the public interest and some 20 plus items of correspondence we had dealt with during the year,” said the WAO spokesman.

“We are currently discussing the fees with the director of resources and will report the position in detail at the next audit committee meeting.”

Plaid Cymru stood by their figure stating the estimate was given by a WAO representative to the council’s audit committee and slammed the authority for entering into a costly legal battle with the Wales finance watchdog.

AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas said: “It would be fair to say that had the council leadership accepted the auditor’s findings many months ago instead of engaging expensive legal teams at public expense, then the Wales Audit Office may not have needed to produce the two damning reports it did.

“I would therefore suggest that this extra £70,000 bill is a direct result of the council leadership’s attempts to challenge the auditor.

“The consequences of the unlawful payments will cost more than the unlawful payments themselves.”

MP Jonathan Edwards said: “A further cost of circa £70,000 because of the damning Wales Audit Office reports is a kick in the teeth to county residents who are fighting every day to protect their local services.

“Quite frankly Carmarthenshire residents deserve better than this.”

Meanwhile, official figures issued by the council following a Plaid Cymru Freedom of Information request has revealed that the authority has already paid £14,995 to the QC engaged to provide legal advice in relation to the two reports.

One WAO report ruled a council pay supplement for chief executive Mark James in lieu of employer pension contributions, deemed little more than a tax avoidance scheme, was unlawful.

The second report branded the council’s tax-payer funded indemnity for Mr James’ High Court libel battle with Llanwrda blogger Jacqui Thompson also unlawful.

The council figures showed that Tim Kerr QC was paid £11,395 for his legal opinion in relation to the pay supplement and a further £3,600 for advice on the indemnity issue.

Mr Kerr is still to submit a bill for his attendance at the extraordinary meeting of the council on February 27, which – according to the authority - should include all charges “including any hotel and travel expenses”.

Mr James has stepped aside from his duties as chief executive for the duration of a police investigation – currently being carried out by Gloucestershire Police – into the unlawful payments.

The Guardian asked the council to comment but received no response.

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