It’s time to bring this serious matter out into the open, say Bollan and Black
Clockwise: George Black, Cllr Jim Bollan, trade union official Margaret Wood, Chief Executive Joyce White and the Council Offices in Dumbarton, where too much is said to have been kept under wraps.
By Bill Heaney
West Dunbartonshire Council officials have been accused of receiving “backhanders in brown envelopes,” expensive meals in posh restaurants and overnights in luxury Loch Lomondside hotels in return for awarding of lucrative contracts from the local authority.
Committee papers discussed by an audit committee have revealed that proper procedures were not followed in the awarding of contracts from Greenspace, which deals with parks, cemeteries and public spaces, and with the Roads Department, which deals with roads maintenance.
Other departments have yet to come under scrutiny by the Council’s internal auditors, but if it is shown that council spending was skewed during this episode, then it follows that subsequent budgets were based on figures which did not reflect what the cost would have been had the proper tendering procedures been followed.
And that the swingeing cuts made in the budget last year – there was a local outcry over the Greenspace cuts in particular – need never have been imposed on council taxpayers.
The report, which went before the audit committee in December, is complicated.
So much so, that it was reported inaccurately that “council officers have been accused of giving backhanders in a series of dodgy contracts totalling more than six figures.”
However, the opposite is the case and the officers are accused not of giving but receiving backhanders to place the contracts with companies who bribed them.
The Democrat revealed exclusively last week that Cllr Jim Bollan of the Community Party had submitted two motions for the council’s next meeting on February 14, asking for the details of the auditor’s report to be made public.
The Renton member asked that no official involved in the inquiry into the matter should be allowed to leave the council’s employment before there was closure.
No one should be allowed to retire with an enhanced commutation package – “a golden parachute”.
Although Greenspace and the Roads Department have been found to have allocated work without formal contracts being signed, and personal interests being declared, the accounts of other important, big spending departments have not yet come under scrutiny by the auditors.
Failure to stick to the rules about tendering over a three-year period was not unusual or isolated, their report said.
Most of the council work went out without being subject to the usual process which involves quotes from contractors. Or without seeking sufficient quotes from contractors.
Ex-councillor George Black, from Milton, raised the matter after being tipped off by a whistle blower, but he lost his Dumbarton seat, which he had held for 13 years, shortly afterwards.
He received little or no support from other members of the Council, many of whom have long considered him an eccentric maverick because he was prepared to put his head above the parapet when others failed to confront sensitive matters.
Mr Black told me this week: “Something is rotten in West Dunbartonshire Council.
“There is a stench of corruption that a shiny new building [Dumbarton Burgh Hall] and a tarnished administration cannot mask.”
The whistle blower alleged that a contract bid had been altered by a named council officer and this resulted in a company getting a contract that they would not otherwise have got.
He added: “Other allegations included work being carried out free gratis at property owned by this officer by the company in question and extensive hospitality provided to this officer which involved expensive meals and drinks in top Glasgow restaurants.
“Receipts were provided [by the whistle blower]to back up these allegations which included invitation to the official to play golf at blue chip courses on the house.”
The whistle blower had made “all of these allegations to the [Council’s] head of Internal Audit months before they were provided to me,” Mr Black added.
He said there were also allegations that another council officer had provided “dog sitting” services – “This involved looking after the company director’s dog overnight while he attended questionable business entertainment at high class lochside venues – hardly what could be described as a normal business relationship.”
Mr Black said none of this registered with him as “being open transparent and above board” and when he looked at the Council’s Audit Performance Review there was no record of the whistle blower’s complaint or that these allegations had been made or investigated.
He said that he had been let down by the council auditors once before when he himself had alleged that a contractor had received over £2 million worth of work over a period of two years “none of which was subjected to the rest of best value or the Council rules regarding the awarding of contracts.”
Mr Black added: “Internal Audit could find no evidence of criminality, and no one was sanctioned or penalised to any notable degree as the result of this.
“I thought the best way forward under these circumstances at the time would be to involve Police Scotland and ask them to look into the allegations.
“Two senior detectives interviewed myself and another councillor. We furnished them with the material that we had been given [by the whistle blower] supporting the allegations and an investigation was commenced.”
He said the police advice was that they should work with the Council as the allegations were very serious, and they approached Internal Audit to make this happen – “The police officers involved in this investigation were concerned regarding the lack of controls, checks and balances that the Council had in place or, more properly, did not have in place to protect the council from this type of activity. The police made suggestions and recommendations to the council vis some vis their concerns.
“In the end I was informed that the Police could not go forward with a criminal prosecution as my whistle blower was not prepared to give evidence in court, and they could not seek a prosecution without this. They did however express the point of view that an investigation had been merited.
“This left us one more time in the hands of the toothless Internal Audit team. A report was duly prepared by these toothless tigers and was in its final stages in the early part of 2016. It has remained buried since that time.”
Mr Black says that when he asked Joyce White, the Council’s chief executive, for a copy of the report she said she said she was deciding what action she would take in light of it.
He added: “Almost two years have now passed and she continues to give an impressive impersonation of an ostrich [with its head buried in the sand] in relation to this matter.
“I am also informed that an officer has taken legal advice with a view to having the report withheld from elected members.”
Mr Black said there were lots of questions to be asked about what had gone on which he hoped would be aired in public at the next full meeting of the Council, which is due to take place at Clydebank Town Hall on February 14.
Trade unionist officials Margaret Wood of Unite and Valerie Jennings of Unison and Drew MacEoghainn of the Community Party.
Community activist Drew MacEoghainn made this plea on social media today: “The community party need a seconder to have this debated. Surely the Labour party and the SNP will have no problem making sure this [Cllr Jim Bollan’s motion] gets passed. Let’s unite to ensure that all staff in West Dunbartonshire Council gets treated the same.”
Unite trade union spokesperson, Margaret Wood, said: “I am sure these councillors will second this motion. It is an absolute must that the people in question go through the same policies as front line staff. The policies are fair if there is no wrong doing then their names will be cleared.
“We must be consistent as no matter what the pay grade we are all employees and as such should be treated equally. I cannot imagine any elected member who would not want to support this. Failure to do so would raise more questions than answers.”