Two kinds of fraud?

Keen Green activist Keith Kondakor has for the second year running pulled his fine-tooth comb through the County Council’s member expenses. Last year he doggedly pursued Martin Heatley over the irregularities in his very large expenses claims (first class travel, curiously long journeys between home and Shire Hall, double claimed journeys). This year he’s obtained via a FOI request another year’s worth of claims by Warwickshire County Councillors.

Along with a very expensive hotel break (£2,500 for five councillors to spend three days in Bournemouth!) and I’m sure a few other inconsistencies, there’s one particular scandal.

It seems that Cllr Barry Lobbett is being told to repay over £600 he claimed for travelling around to do election campaigning. This is clearly a breach of the rules of councillors’ expenses, because election campaigns are not council business. I expect Keith Kondakor will be pressing for more action than just getting the money back and a symbolic rap on the knuckles, as happened with Heatley.

However, there emerges another question. What about Cllr Lobbett’s notification for election expenses? By law all candidates have to declare how much has been spent on their campaigns. So did he include this cost? Because if he didn’t, that would be another matter. If it puts the total over the allowed limit, then he’s in a serious breach of the rules.

Jeremy Wright – because he’s worth it (800 quid)

I did see this story before Christmas, but I didn’t get around to blogging it until now. Hopefully it won’t be completely forgotten about in the next few months…

Jeremy Wright, current MP for Rugby & Kenilworth, and standing in the far safer seat of Kenilworth and Southam later in the year, was found to have overclaimed nearly £800 in mobile phone charges in his second home expenses. Sir Thomas Legg has determined that this should be repaid, and Wright himself has conceded that the claim was not technically allowable. But still, Jezzer is appealing against it anyway (Coventry Telegraph).

In a couple of weeks we should hear whether our (soon to be ex-) MP will need to cough up, or has been allowed to keep the lucre. Either way, it does seem to be a trend among local Tories to make ‘mistakes’ with their expenses, eh?

On the Martin Heatley case, I have had a full response from my local councillor, John Vereker CBE, to the questions about the standards hearing and here it is, over two emails:

Dear Mr Richards

My apologies for not replying to your earlier email. I should, as you say, have acknowledged it.

I note your views on the matter of Martin Heatley but I can assure you, as a member of the panel which examined these issues in detail, that they are not substantiated by the evidence.

Yours sincerely

John Vereker

and (following a further question about whether ‘not substantiated by the evidence’ means that the report showing all the evidence was incorrect):

Dear Mr Richards

I note your comments. The panel’s decision is final and was based on a thorough examination of the facts. There is no suggestion of errors within the auditors report.
The minutes of the meeting are available on the council’s website.

Yours sincerely

John  Vereker

Well, I guess that’s that then. The guy has been claiming for car journeys that are oddly far longer than necessary, for First Class rail tickets that he shouldn’t have, and all he gets is a slap on the wrist and told to pay back only the £200 most obviously over claimed.

And that must be ok, because his pal from the Masons says so.

The full report on the Standards hearing is available (with notes by the original complainant) here: http://www.greennuneaton.org.uk/wex/kkwp/?page_id=25

The value of friendship

Further to the Martin Heatley expenses affair (these three posts), I decided to look at who was sitting on the Standards meeting that gave him the stern punishment of having to pay back £200 out of £2800 in overclaimed expenses, and make an apology before doing the training he should have done years ago on how not to be a naughty boy.

The three members were the Independent Chairman, John Bridgeman CBE and County Councillors John Vereker CBE and Tim Naylor. I had seen an allegation that one of these was, along with Cllr Heatley, a Freemason.

Looking at the registers of interest, I see that indeed, Cllr Vereker lists the Freemasons Grand Charity on his interests. Cllr Heatley lists “Grand Charity 281943″ as an interest also. This number is actually that of the Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation, but this appears to be a slip of the pen/keyboard as the Grand Charity run by the Freemasons is 281942 (of course, it may be a deliberate attempt to make it hard to link Heatley with the Freemasons)

This means that indeed, both Cllr Heatley and one of his adjudicating panel do seem to be involved in the Freemasons. This smells very fishy indeed.

It’s all gone quiet…

Following my posts about Cllr Martin Heatley’s expenses claims, and the easy ride he’s been given over them, I looked up who was on the panel making the decision on the matter.

It turns out that one of them is John Vereker CBE, who happens to be the councillor for the area where I’m living. So, out of  sheer curiosity, I sent him an email to ask (among other things) why overpayments of over £2,500 merit only a repayment of £200 and an apology.

Thing is, I don’t expect to get full answers, as I daresay that Cllr Vereker would not be allowed to go into some of the stuff that the council claim is to be kept from the public. But the guy has not even acknowledged receipt of  my email after 10 days.

Nothing.

Has Cllr Vereker got something to hide? Or is he just too busy to answer a constituent’s email?

Martin Heatley – a little remiss?

A few snippets that I’ve gleaned from the complaints about Cllr Heatley’s ‘accidental’ over-claiming, by reading the officers’ report into the investigation that can be found on Keith Konkagor’s  website (link):

1) He had signed undertakings to abide by the Councillors’ Code of Conduct in May 2005 and again in June 2009. But he claimed not to have received any training on it (odd, he’s been a councillor for 16 years, and these started coming in way before 2005). Turns out that he missed the last two opportunities to attend training. So, what kind of person signs up to something and doesn’t take the time to understand what it means?

2) When travelling to and from Warwick from his home, he claimed mileage for 52 miles. The shortest route (which is what most companies will use) is about 36 miles. Going via the A46 past Coventry would be about 45 miles – I checked these myself on googlemaps. When claiming for mileage to and from Nuneaton railway station, he put down 10 miles for the round trip, when the distance should be 3 miles each way. This is in contravention of expenses rules.

3) When travelling by train to London, he often claimed for a First Class ticket, which is more expensive than a standard class ticket bought on the day of travel, even if booked in advance. This is in contravention of the expenses rules.

4) The original complaint concerned recent claims, but the investigation by the council went over the period 2009-2009. It was estimated that the over-claim on trips to and from Shire Hall in this period alone amounted to over £2,000. It was also established that this had been ongoing for some time before 2007.

5) He didn’t fill out claim forms properly, ostensibly to save money on paperwork, and didn’t include a description of the meetings/or duties when doing so. This is in contravention of the expenses policy

6) Taking a sample of car journeys claimed for other than to and from the Shire Hall or Nuneaton Station, it was found that the total distance claimed for was about 25% higher than the shortest distance by road would be, which is what should have been claimed for.

7) He claimed that using First Class rail travel was partly done because it offers greater privacy when discussing senstive matters. Last time I was on a Virgin or Midland train, the First Class carriage was not made up of private booths, and so it’s not much less private than standard class. He surely shouldn’t be openly discussing such matters on the train anyway?

8 ) He also said that Virgin offered a special rate for businessmen who travel first class, so it was cheaper. Virgin do not offer such a rate, and even by booking advance tickets he was claiming more than he would if he’d bought a standard ticket on the day of travel. The estimated overclaims for 2007-2009 for this came to about £600

9) The double claim was for travel to a Planning training event in Swansea, for which claims went in in both August and September 2007. There were in fact two meetings for which he claimed where he was not listed as attending – for one of those he sent apologies for absence.

From this, I can only conclude that the amount he’s had to repay is the bare minimum based on a double claim and claims for meetings he didn’t go to. But that came to about £200, and it’s estimated that over £2600 has been over paid to Cllr Heatley over the period 2007-9.

Not keeping proper records, not filling in the forms properly, coming up with vague reasons for long journeys and not taking the training that he should have are not excuses for the over claiming. Indeed, they suggest to me that he has generally been failing in his obligations

Indeed, reading Mr Kondakor’s comments, and the claim forms that were obtained from a Freedom of Information request, it seems that there were other oddities:

  • A 100-mile round trip to Leicester, which is 22 miles from his Nuneaton home
  • A 20 mile round trip to Bermuda Village, which is at the end of the road his farm is on, and over the A444
  • A claim of 40 miles for a round trip to Coventry (about 10 miles away depending where it was he was going t0) on the 32nd March 2009

The report itself is damning. I can’t understand how he got away so leniently. Is Mr Kondakor right about the compostion of the committee that met to decide the complaint on Monday?

Comparing two local councillors

My last two posts have mentioned Ron Ravenhall, who passed away last week, after years of serving as a borough councillor and in passioned support for what he stood for – and what many of his constituents wanted.

On the same day that I heard about Ron’s death, I saw a story about another Warwickshire councillor – Martin Heatley. It seems that Cllr Heatley, the Tory councillor for Nuneaton Whitestone has been over-claiming on his expenses. He was the Cabinet member responsible for the Environment, but is now responsible for Resources – in particular the  ‘effective use’ of them, including finance.

He has been claiming for a journey of 52 miles from his home to the Shire Hall each time (when the distance is 35 miles by road using the same method most companies do – get multimap or google maps to show the best route), he’s been using first class rail travel on public money for no apparently good reason. He’s had to repay £200 for claims that were invalid (any employer might call them ‘fraudulent’, but his pals accepted that they were accidental) – one journey was claimed for twice, and two were for a return trip to a meeting that he didn’t attend. His manner of record keeping and applying for expenses was “not complying with the authority’s reasonable requirements”.

But, he was only made to repay the £200 and issue an apology, before attending re-training on the councillors’ code of conduct and how the expense scheme works (that he should have received already). From the article, it seems he got off lightly – I’d at least expect his position as a Cabinet member to be reconsidered, particularly given that he’s responsible for finance and has clearly admitted ‘accidentally’ taking money from WCC that he wasn’t entitled to.

There’s a comment on the article from Keith Kondakor, the green activist who made complaints about Cllr Heatley’s activities, which make further allegations about how the lenient decision was arrived at – I’ve asked Mr Kondakor for more info on that, because it suggests that all is not well down at Warwick.

Addendum at 00:00 December 10: I forgot to highlight the words of Cllr Heatley as quoted in the Coventry Times article:

“I always believe in the rule of law. I have spent my whole life doing so.”

“I am from a good Christian family that believes in those rules.”

Oh, yeah. So he’s got religion and that makes it alright then?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 203 other followers