CROYDON IN CRISIS: A Local Government Association-backed inquest into possible wrong-doing at Fisher’s Folly is expected to be delivered in the next few days, but official secrecy and untruths raise further suspicions that it will end up being just a ‘whitewash’. EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
Officials at Fisher’s Folly have blocked calls for them to publish the list of interviewees in its Local Government Association-funded investigation into possible malpractice and illegal conduct under former chief executive Jo Negrini and council leader Tony Newman, as suspicions have been raised that the exercise will be an expensive cover-up.
Richard Penn, the investigator hand-picked for the task by the LGA, is understood to have interviewed at least 40 Croydon employees and councillors, past and present, in his “desk-top” investigation into any possible wrong-doing at the Town Hall which led to Croydon being forced to declare itself effectively bankrupt.
Penn has told those interviewed that he would be writing up his report over the Christmas period and then submitting it to the LGA and to Katherine Kerswell, the council’s £192,474 per year interim chief executive.
There’s increasing scepticism about the aims of the investigation. “The council never discussed the terms of reference publicly, councillors were never able to make suggestions to toughen up the inquiry or try to make it more rigorous,” a Town Hall source said.
“They didn’t make them public, perhaps in case anyone found out. It might not be, but right from the start it just looks like a cosy internal stitch-up.”
And – just as when Negrini was in charge – council officials have shown themselves to be secretive, withholding Penn’s terms of reference for his investigation to the point where they broke Freedom of Information laws over the timings of their responses.
Since he was appointed just over a month ago, Inside Croydon has also learned of reservations over Penn’s approach to his work, with accusations made that he has “whitewashed” earlier, similar investigations, allowing local authority officials to walk away from serious allegations, and potentially even criminal prosecutions, with nothing more than a handsome pay-off.
In November, Inside Croydon revealed exclusively that Negrini, the council CEO who had led Croydon to the brink of bankruptcy before exiting Fisher’s Folly with a £440,000 pay-off, would not be compelled to give evidence to the investigation.
As “Negreedy” was now an ex-council employee, she could only be invited to be interviewed, with Penn left to wait to see whether the self-described “regeneration practitioner” will find time in her undoubtedly busy schedule to agree to take part in the process.
In an unscientific poll of Inside Croydon readers, 99.12 per cent said that Negrinni should be compelled to be interviewed.
Soon after Kerswell announced that the investigation was to take place, the council received a Freedom of Information request for the terms of reference, to identify who would be leading the investigation, the budget allocated to the process, and “a list of all those – including councillors and past and present council staff – who are to be interviewed as part of this investigation”.
Inside Croydon was the first to reveal that the inquiry was to be conducted by Penn, the commissioner for standards at National Assembly for Wales, and we published the full terms of reference last month, after a copy was leaked to this website from staffers at Fisher’s Folly.
The council had never published the terms of reference on its website, nor provided all staff or even elected councillors with contact details for Penn so that they might volunteer their own evidence to his enquiry.
Indeed, some councillors were never directly informed that the investigation was underway until after Penn was nearly halfway through his month-long, and apparently half-hearted, quest for truth. “It has all the hallmarks of preparing for a whitewash when it comes to establishing who is responsible for bankrupting the borough,” one angry councillor told Inside Croydon.
As if to reinforce that point, on Thursday the council belatedly responded to the FoI request, finally “providing” a copy of the terms of reference (which had been placed in the public domain by this website one month earlier).
But they still refused to provide the budgeted costs of Penn and his investigation (“yet to be confirmed as it is still ongoing”, they said, suggesting that the LGA had handed him a blank cheque).
And they refused to release the list of interviewees. “The Council does hold the requested information,” the anonymous council functionary wrote, teasingly.
“Section 8 of the terms of reference explains who is being invited for interview, ‘The investigator will interview elected members, chief officers, trade union representatives and other staff across the council as well as relevant external partners. Previous chief officers will also be invited to be interviewed’.”
The FoI official then repeated a line from the terms of reference which has already been demonstrated to be untrue: “‘All council staff and councillors will be offered an opportunity through a secure email address direct to Richard Penn to offer any relevant information’.”
In the email, the anonymous official added, “While there is public interest in the conduct and the outcomes of this investigation, this must be balanced by the need to engage with those who are taking part in a spirt [sic] of openness and candour to enable the investigation to meet its aims.
“Those who are taking part in this process (which at the time of writing is not complete)…”, again, according to those who were allowed to participate, this is also untrue, “… did so on the understanding that they would not be identified.”
As one sceptical councillor said, “So someone, who they won’t say who, has hand-picked all the interviewees, who they won’t identify, to provide information to an investigator who himself is a former council chief executive… It’s hardly open or transparent or very independent, now is it?”
The council’s official response states, “The identification of participants could undermine the ability of the investigation to gather information, as those who have yet to attend an interview, may be reluctant to do so…”. Though the council had delayed its response to the FoI request for such a long time that all of the interviews had by then already been concluded.
The council claimed, “Those who have already provided evidence could consider that their reasonable ‘expectations of privacy’ have been broken which was the basis upon which they participated in the investigation interviews as per the terms of reference.”
But what “expectations of privacy” should there be for public officials and elected councillors, all participating in a publicly-funded exercise to determine what went wrong with millions of pounds of public money?
“Therefore the names of those who have been interviewed or are due to be interviewed have been withheld as this information is considered to be exempt from disclosure,” the council dead-batted the request with all the lack of flair of a Geoffrey Boycott innings.
As a Katharine Street source said today, “It hardly inspires confidence in the process. In fact, it seems that they are already preparing the way for a cover-up.”
According to the terms of reference which Kerswell and council officials never wanted published, it won’t even be the elected councillors who will decide what action to take, based on Penn’s handiwork. “If relevant, the interim chief executive will consider if any other formal proceedings are required to be commenced following receipt of the report.”
Is it a case of ‘Wirral in it together’?
So Kerswell – who herself has direct, personal experience of walking away from a local authority with a pay-off of £400,000 – will have the final call on whether to call in Inspector Knacker of the Yard.
“As I said, it doesn’t inspire confidence,” the source said. “It’s far from the ‘independent’ investigation we were told it would be. Senior council officials and former senior officials, such as Penn, have a knack of protecting their own.”
Certainly, Penn has a track record of getting paid handsomely to come up with a “nothing to see here” ruling on fellow local council workers.
In 2012, Wirral District Council suspended four officials after a critical public interest report into the award of the authority’s highways and engineering services contract four years earlier.
After he conducted his inquiry and delivered his report, the four officials were found to have no case to answer.
None of them ever worked for Wirral again, and they were paid off with a total of more than £400,000 of public money. Bill Norman, who had been director of law, HR and asset management, got the biggest golden handshake as he was “reorganised” out of his job with a tidy £146,416.
But what is particularly interesting in all of this was the arrogance and dismissiveness shown by Penn when a member of the public, a Wirral Council Tax-payer, had the audacity to seek to play a part in the process and wrote to the investigator to question his independence.
“I really don’t know what this has got to do with you, or why you take it on yourself to comment on my investigation,” Penn wrote back to the member of the public. “My instinct is therefore to ignore your intrusive emails.”
Penn always maintained that he “had no current or prior contact let alone any ‘affiliation’ with the council or with any employee I was being asked to investigate”. But no formal declarations of interest were requested by the Wirral nor offered by Penn.
“Who on earth do you think you are?” Penn wrote in another email to the Council Tax-payer. “Please do not communicate with me again as I will not respond further.”
Which might explain why in 2020, Croydon Council did their best to keep Penn’s email address a strict secret. Woe betide anyone, then, to dare suggest that for Richard Penn and senior council officials, “Wirral in it together”.
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