CROYDON IN CRISIS: A year-long struggle with the council has revealed the possibility that Jo Negrini was breaking the law when using the Queen’s solicitors in a failed attempt to have news reports removed from this website
The Information Commissioner has ordered Katherine Kerswell, Croydon’s interim chief executive, to review the local authority’s handling of a Freedom of Information request on behalf of this website. The FoI sought to discover whether Tony Newman and Jo Negrini were using council money or resources to pursue threats of legal action against Inside Croydon and its editor, Steven Downes.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has stepped in following a complaint made by Downes following a year-long battle with the council’s now former leaders, after Newman and Negrini tried – unsuccessfully – to get website news reports critical of their actions removed from the public domain.
In a formal notice sent to Kerswell this month, the ICO wrote that they require Croydon Council, “to revisit the way you have handled this matter and consider what further action you can now take to resolve this complaint.
“We expect organisations to deal with the data protection complaints they receive and to proactively work with their customers to provide an appropriate resolution.”
Newman had been the first council figure to threaten to take libel action against this website, when he engaged Harbottle and Lewis, Covent Garden-based solicitors who more often act on behalf of the Queen and the Royal Family.
The lawyers wrote to Inside Croydon on December 2, 2019, seeking the removal of an article which laid out how the council leader and White Ribbon supporter had failed to report a serious case of sexual assault on a young woman by one of his deputy cabinet members in September 2019.
Clearly, they didn’t want anyone to know what they were up to. Essential if you are conducting a cover-up.
Their complaint referred to two articles, Council leader delayed reporting violent incident to police, which we published on November 27 last year, and Fears that Newman cover-up could impact Jones’s election, published on November 30, just days before the General Election.
Newman’s lawyers wrote that, “the claims made in the Articles are untrue, and seriously defamatory of Councillor Newman. The Articles wrongly allege that when Councillor Newman became aware of an allegation of domestic violence involving Councillor Sirosena [sic], he spent 24 hours seeking to cover it up (the ‘Allegation’). Such Allegation [sic] is untrue and is seriously defamatory of our client, and indeed to allege that he would seek to ‘cover up’ an allegation of serious criminal misconduct is of the highest order.”
The fact is Newman never reported the assault by Niro Sirisena to the police.
His first actions on hearing about the incident were to deal with the potential political damage to his council administration and the Labour Party, by forcing Sirisena to resign as a councillor and from the Labour Party.
Newman’s lawyers demanded that the articles be removed from the website, that they should receive a written undertaking not to republish the allegation or any similar allegation, and for the website to publish a retraction and apology on terms to be agreed prior to publication. And they demanded that this all be done in a matter of a few hours.
“It is considered that [your] demands were unreasonable and unrealistic. This may well reflect the nature of your client,” we replied.
We added, “It should be noted that you are receiving this response in less time than it took Newman and other councillors to report to the police a serious incident of domestic violence against a young woman that they learned may have been committed by one of their colleagues.
“It is also the case that a letter from a firm of lawyers demanding that news reports be immediately removed from the public domain might, to any reasonable member of the public, be seen to be an attempt to ‘cover-up’ the information contained in those reports.”
And we put Harbottle and Lewis and Newman on warning that “in the interests of ‘openness and transparency’ (Croydon Labour Party manifesto, May 2014), that any or all correspondence received in this case may be used for publication, on InsideCroydon.com or in multiple other publications”.
Harbottle and Lewis refused to answer our (cheeky) question, which was based, of course, on the suspicion that Newman may not have been relying on his own resources to pay their extravagant fees.
Suspicion of an orchestrated campaign
On December 10 last year, we received the third and, so far, final letter from Harbottle and Lewis on behalf of Newman (estimated cost: at least £800 a pop), which repeated their demands, and said, “We are aware that you have published a number of false and misleading claims on your website about our client, as well as others, and we reserve our client’s right to rely upon such conduct as evidence of malice, and in support of a claim for aggravated damages in the event that legal proceedings are necessary.”
The threat of “malice” in any libel action ups the ante for the defendant considerably.
All our reports about the discredited Newman’s time as leader of Croydon Council remain in the public domain today.
What really stirred our suspicions about whether this may have been a co-ordinated campaign by the council’s leadership dropped into our email inbox on February 21 this year. The email began, “We write to you on behalf of Jo Negrini.”
How much of a coincidence could it be that the £220,000 a year council CEO and the council leader might both use the same high-powered firm of London solicitors for separate complaints to this website within a matter of weeks?
And if it was concerted action against this website, then was it being orchestrated by the council’s legal department? And how was it being paid?
Negrini had the right ‘ump with us because of an article published in January entitled, Negrini’s legacy on housing is also costing Newham millions.
Harbottle and Lewis again claimed that the article “is seriously defamatory of our client”.
That, of course, is utter nonsense.
Our report dealt substantively with the plight of Red Door Ventures, an arm’s length house-builder in the borough of Newham where, in council reports, the Labour-run local authority was struggling to make it work as they had hoped, delivering homes for local residents and profits to the council.
The parallels with Brick by Brick set up under Negrini in Croydon were many and obvious.
It had certainly been obvious to Inside Croydon for a couple of years that Negrini’s housing project in Croydon was costing the borough millions.
Red Door Ventures was established in 2014.
As we reported: “The 2014 date for the launch of Red Door Ventures in Croydon is significant, since that was the year that Jo Negrini first burst through the revolving doors of Fisher’s Folly, full of bright ‘new’ ideas for the regeneration of Croydon. For the four years before that, Negrini, who is now Croydon’s £220,000 chief executive, had been working as the director of ‘strategic regeneration, planning and Olympic legacy’ for the London Borough of… Newham.”
Our response to Harbottle and Lewis required “that you should make clear whether you are acting on behalf of Ms Negrini in a personal capacity, or in her position as chief executive of Croydon Council”.
A couple of days later, we got a £800-plus response which actually answered our question, albeit grudgingly.
“It is clear that making such serious allegations about our client who is the Chief Executive of the Council substantially aggravates the damage caused,” they bleated.
“Notwithstanding the above, and to the extent that it assists you, we write in our client’s capacity as Chief Executive of the Council.”
Which, according to Ebenezer Grabbit of Inside Croydon’s lawyers, Sue, Grabbit and Runne, is “Dynamite!”
Our esteemed legal eagle explained, “Council officers are not allowed to issue libel claims against the residents that pay their wages. And they are certainly never allowed to use council funds to pay for it.
“Here you have what appears to be a clear admission by lawyers acting for Negrini that she was breaking those laws.”
The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order 2004, article 6 (3) states, “No indemnity may be provided under this Order in relation to the making by the member or officer indemnified of any claim in relation to an alleged defamation of that member or officer…”.
If our suspicions were well-founded, and Negrini and Newman were acting in concert over their Harbottle and Lewis campaign against this website, then it could also mean that the council leader will have at least known about, if not actively encouraged, the council chief executive in this act of breaking the law.
It was at this point that Inside Croydon submitted a Freedom of Information request for the correspondence between the chief executive, the council leader and the head of legal services with Harbottle and Lewis between October 1, 2019 and February 25, 2020 (the date of the FoI request).
The council delayed responding, until in April they replied with a refusal to provide any of the correspondence. An internal review was requested (necessary to pursue any complaint), and amended to be treated as a subject access request, or SAR. The council continued to delay.
Then, on June 16, the council provided a much-overdue response to the internal review, citing legal privilege and personal information for its continued refusal to release the information requested. The council then missed its deadline for a response to the SAR, and said it would get a response by August 17. Nothing has ever been received.
And to think that Newman’s original libel threat was because we had characterised his actions as that of a cover-up.
It was now that the matter was referred to the Information Commissioner.
Downes wrote to the ICO, “It is clear to me that the council wishes to withhold this information, since it would be seriously compromising of the chief executive and council leader to be shown to be utilising a firm of private solicitors, through the council, to pursue their own, private interests.
“I would like to get access to all correspondence between the council and Harbottle and Lewis in relation to me or the website, as a matter of some urgency.”
Since then, Negrini quit Fisher’s Folly at the end of August after her lawyers negotiated a £440,000 pay-off, while in October Newman resigned as leader of the council he has helped to bankrupt.
He has not been subject to any disciplinary action by the Labour Party and remains a councillor.
The ICO’s letter was sent to Katherine Kerswell on December 3.
To date, Inside Croydon has still to receive a response from the council.
Read more: Pot-less council had £300,000 legal fund to battle blogger
Read more: Woman assaulted by Labour councillor: I want to reopen case
Read more: Newman’s £100m gamble with your money
Read more: Brick by Brick has paid nothing to council
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