EXCLUSIVE: The former CEO, who presided over a £500m increase in the borough’s debts in just three years, may avoid being questioned about the financial collapse of the council. By STEVEN DOWNES
Jo Negrini, the council official who led Croydon to the brink of bankruptcy before strolling away with a £440,000 pay-off in August, could yet dodge questioning in the official investigation into the borough’s financial collapse.
That’s according to senior officials at Fisher’s Folly, who have ordered journalists to “remove any reference to Jo Negrini” in their reporting of the investigation which is to be conducted with the help of the Local Government Association, which was announced last week by Negrini’s successor as council CEO, Katherine Kerswell.
“Many will think it’s a scandal if Negrini is immune from questioning,” one senior Croydon source told Inside Croydon today, as the reality emerged that, when negotiating the chief exec’s severance terms, the council’s lawyers failed to include anything to oblige her to assist with any post mortem into the mess she had done so much to create.
The investigation, Inside Croydon has discovered, is to be conducted by Richard Penn, the CEO at Bradford council when Eric Pickles was the leader of the city council.
For the past 20 years, Penn has been operating as a consultant to a range of public bodies, including working with the Association of Local Government Chief Executives (yep, there is such a thing), and since 2001 he has been the Commissioner for Standards at the National Assembly of Wales. The Croydon investigation is likely to focus on standards at the council, or the lack of them.
Croydon Council, despite recent claims to being more open and transparent than previously, has so far refused to release Penn’s terms of reference for his investigation into the financial mismanagement at the council. Yesterday, a spokesman for the LGA was also back-pedalling on his organisation’s involvement in the investigation, suggesting that it is only “nuanced”.
“The LGA is not a regulator, we do not inspect councils,” said the spokesman. “But, like in Croydon’s case, we provide a range of improvement support to councils and can help facilitate the appointment of independent investigators.”
Kerswell told a council meeting last week that the scope of the investigation would consider the actions of members – meaning elected councillors – as well as council staff. “We know what happened, that’s in the auditors’ Report in the Public Interest,” Kerswell said. “This independent investigation by the LGA will look at how it happened.
“If the investigation finds that formal questions arise, then that will take place.”
A report to tonight’s meeting of the council cabinet states, “This independent initial investigation will advise whether there is any formal action to be pursued through any relevant formal disciplinary process.” That might include filing a report to the Crown Prosecution Service. There is an offence under Common Law, called Misconduct in public office, which carries a maximum life sentence in prison.
Inside Croydon understands that Penn has been provided with a list of potential interviewees. Negrini’s name is not on the list.
According to a source at Fisher’s Folly, “The LGA is not investigating her.”
Those councillors on Penn’s list for interview include Tony Newman, the widely discredited former leader of the council who promoted Negrini to the top job in July 2016; Simon Hall, his cabinet member for finance; plus Hamida Ali and Stuart King, both cabinet members since 2018 and now leader and deputy leader of the council respectively; Sean Fitzsimons, the chair of the scrutiny committee since 2014; and Karen Jewitt, who chairs the General Purposes and Audit Committee.
Senior council staff, including six-figure salaried exec directors, are also expected to be interviewed by Penn, who began his preliminary work this week.
It is not only the public who have been denied sight of Penn’s terms of reference: elected councillors, Labour as well as Conservatives, have yet to see how the investigator will work.
According to a Labour councillor, “We haven’t seen any terms of reference for the LGA probe and there has been no suggestion to the Labour group that it won’t be looking very closely at Jo Negrini’s role alongside that of other senior council officers.
“The LGA probe must leave no stone unturned if it is to get to the bottom of how Croydon Council ended up in this mess.
“Giving Jo Negrini any sort of immunity from investigation would smack of a cover-up. It would be outrageous.”
Another suggested that, “Even if she isn’t interviewed by the LGA, there is nothing to stop senior officers or councillors from spilling the beans. Depending on the outcome of the LGA probe, there’s always the possibility that she might be required to assist the police with their inquiries.”
Negrini joined Croydon Council in 2014 as an executive director in charge of the borough’s housing and development plans, describing herself as a “regeneration practitioner”. Her two great projects, the delivery of the Westfield shopping mall in the town centre and house-builder Brick by Brick, her brainchild, have both failed to deliver.
It was in the period when Negrini was chief executive from 2016 that the council’s borrowing spiralled, and the authority was given five warnings about its low level of reserves.
In the past month, the 59-year-old Australian has established a consultancy, called Total Place, from an address in East Dulwich.
Other senior figures at the Town Hall say that, as an ex-employee of the council, there is nothing that can be done to compel Negrini to take part in the Penn investigation.
Penn is expected to invite to interview two other former Croydon exec directors, Rob Henderson, who was in charge of children’s services and education until earlier this year, and Richard Simpson, the council’s chief finance officer until December 2018.
“And he’ll probably invite Jo Negrini to be interviewed, too,” they added.
The source said, “Anyone with any hopes of continuing to work in any capacity in the public sector couldn’t possibly refuse to be interviewed.”
Neither Kerswell nor Ali responded to Inside Croydon’s invitation to comment.
Read more: £440,000 ‘golden handshake’ is Negrini’s reward for failure
Read more: Brick by Brick has paid nothing to council
Read more: Council ignored five warnings on reserves
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