Monday, 18 February 2013

The Chief Executive has a shot at answering a few questions

Update 4.30pm 19 February

After a brief cross-examination of the head of planning, Eifion Bowen, the court was adjourned until tomorrow, which is expected to be the final day.

Sadly Debbie Williams, manager of the council's notorious Press Office, was not called. Now that would have made for some interesting testimony.

Observers may have spotted that all of Mr James's witnesses today, bar one retired officer, report  indirectly to Mr James and are on "his" payroll. Rather oddly, he told the court yesterday that the council employs 9,500 people, whereas Meryl used to boast, "Mark and I employ 9,000 people".  Perhaps something has gone wrong with payroll.

Having heard the reporting from today's cross-examinations you have to feel sorry for some of them, as they were damned if they did, and damned if they didn't [give evidence for the boss, that is].

Update 12.40 am 19 February

Three more witnesses for Mr James have since been cross-examined, all involved in the events which resulted in Jacqui's arrest for filming. All three have said on oath that they could not be sure that she was filming.

One of the witnesses was former council solicitor, Mr Lyn Thomas. In 2008 the Western Mail wrote an opinion piece criticising the council's libel indemnity amendment. The article can be found here. This incensed the council's top brass who considered it to be unbalanced. A formal complaint was made to the paper, and Mr Thomas wrote a letter denying that the council had adopted a policy of indemnifying officers and members for libel claims.

How Mr Thomas squared his letter with the amendment which had been passed is destined to remain a mystery. 

Update 11.20 am 19 February

First up this morning is a council officer, Mr John Davies. Mr Davies was sent up to the public gallery when Mr James and others suspected that Jacqui Thompson was filming. It transpired under cross-examination that Mr Davies changed his statement several times after speaking to the council's solicitor and the police. It also became apparent that Mr Davies has poor eyesight, and he acknowledged that he needs to go for an eye test. In addition he admitted that he touched Jacqui Thompson, although in his (much amended) statement he claimed that there was no physical contact. Strangely no copy of his original draft statement (the one he wrote before submitting it to the council's solicitor) appears to have survived.

Despite this, the council accused Jacqui of attempting to pervert the course of justice.

Oh dear.

Update 19 February

Court 14 is a relatively small courtroom with pretty much everyone sitting cheek by jowl. As the case has gone on, it has become noticeable that the James team has been growing in size. Yesterday his legal team far outnumbered \Jacqui Thompson's, and they were joined by a number of council officers, including Eifion Bowen, head of planning, Debbie Williams, manager of the council's press office, Lyn Thomas, former head of law and administration, and the ever-present Linda Rees Jones, current head of law. Three more are expected to join the throng today, along with Cllr Ivor Jackson from Llandovery.

This may help to explain why we are expecting another sharp rise in council tax this year.


Day Four of the James v Thompson libel trial saw Mark James take the stand and face cross-examination. For everyone who was not in court today, the next best thing was following developments on Twitter using the hashtag #daftarrest.

After a pretty miserable three days for Jacqui Thompson last week, the court got its first real opportunity to see what she has been blogging about for the last few years.

Expect a detailed account from Mrs Angry in due course, but it is fair to say that for anyone who followed today's proceedings, the reputation of Carmarthenshire County Council is in shreds, and Mr James has for the first time had to submit himself to questions which should have been asked long, long ago in County Hall.

Possibly the most embarrassing admission came towards the end of the session today when James admitted that he had not actually read Jacqui Thompson's blog until he set about deciding whether to counter-sue and embark on litigation which could cost the council taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds.

What Mr James has unwittingly done here is to let the cat out of the bag. This admission, and the fact that he appears to have dragged half of the council's officers along, is the clearest evidence we are likely to get that this is not Mark James CBE acting in a personal capacity but the council suing a resident for defamation. In other words, the council's case is politically motivated and an attempt to silence one of its few remaining critics in the media.

The court heard of secret meetings. One took place in January 2012 to approve the indemnity, and James claimed he could not remember whether he stayed or left the meeting in which he had a direct personal interest. Other secret meetings, undocumented, took place to form a plan to "deal with" Jacqui Thompson.

At times Mr James seemed to be suffering from a severe case of amnesia. He could not remember that there had been any controversy about the change in the council's constitution to allow publicly funded libel actions. He could not remember that an MP had called for a public inquiry into the planning department.

He admitted that he had not consulted council members before sending his allegedly libellous letter to the Madaxeman blog, and he acknowledged that in hindsight, perhaps he should not have sent it.

He admitted that he had sent "prejudicial" material about Jacqui Thompson to the Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys Police before she was arrested, and he acknowledged that he had asked for the police to be called when he believed she was filming a council meeting. But he maintained that the arrest had nothing to do with him.

James also admitted that the council's ban on filming was not actually documented anywhere, and that the council had never placed either Jacqui or her husband on its persistent complainants list.

He was also questioned about some of the council's visionary regeneration schemes and its use of public money, such as maintaining two part-time chauffeurs. This apparently costs £33,000 a year. Asked whether he thought that was a lot of money, James replied, "If you say so".

Several other observers in court have noticed the presence of Mrs Rees Jones, the council's Head of Law, in court throughout the proceedings so far, and questions are being asked about what that is costing the taxpayer and what her role is in this case.

If that were not enough to give Carmarthenshire residents a fit of the vapours, Cneifiwr has it from a reliable source that Mr James and Mrs Rees Jones have been shuttling back and forth between Paddington and Carmarthen in First Class.

Stay tuned for a fuller and more elegant account from Mrs Angry later this evening.


Patricia B. said...

Not staying at the Dorchester then?? With the cost of first class train fairs for three of them, perhaps it would have been cheaper??

Anonymous said...

Someone said on one of the tweets today on #daftarrest that it was now time for someone in Welsh Labour to grow a pair and sort this out.

It really is time for the Labour group in CCC to grip this. It must probably be down to the Llanelli group to oust the leader and make a fresh start.

Please please please get a grip. whoever is right or wrong the attitude of the council has precipitated a situation that will cost the taxpayer dearly whoever wins.

You can not take a case to the high court and expect change from a huge amount of dosh. money that could be used to keep services going for vulnerable people - people who labour should be sticking up for.

Lets face it - if council meetings were filmed they would be watched by the population for abou five minutes - they qare not riveting, beleive me.

PS - who in theire right minds sanctioned the employment of chauffers at the cost of £30000 PA in Carmarthenshire ? you just could not make it up !!!

Anonymous said...

The #daftarrest hashtag tweets are available on a Facebook page and are updated every 30 minutes

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, this is how it's always been, and to date THEY have always gotten away with it. Different kettle of fish tho in the High Courts of London. Mark James has brought embarrassment on himself, and on the Welsh Government who have failed to intervene and allowed him free rein, even though Ministers have been asked time and again to step in. Maybe it really is time now for him to go.

Delyth Jenkins said...

Doesn't sound like he is 'fit for purpose'.

Delyth Jenkins said...

What comes back to me time and time again is, 'back off a bit' when I had already been treated so appallingly by employees of the Council, and to hear a Chief Executive yell this at me shows that they couldn't give a damn.
Lessons learnt? - what a joke!

Tessa said...

WWOW! Bloody hell! What admissions!

Re the failings in memory - how undignified! Far better to openly admit questionable practice, even where this looks bad. At least this would show some backbone.

Patricia B. said...

No minutes of meetings? Was told by someone else? Don't know? No paper trail? Sound familiar. Does with me.

m1books said...

All the ratepayers of Carmarthenshire should be withholding a substantial amount of their soon due next Council Tax bill. We should not be paying for this disgraceful spectacle.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear how shoddy!

Delyth Jenkins said...

Patricia B 10.06

Sounds familiar with me too!

Anonymous said...

If he can't remember simple things what the hell is he doing as the Council's Chief Executive?

Patricia B. said...

Mark James has shot himself in both feet with this appalling spectacle acted out in the High Courts in London. Somehow, I'm not surprised at the revelations, it's 'how it is' here in rural Wales.

Patricia B. said...

Surprisingly they have adjourned until tomorrow. Perhaps the James team have waved the 'white flag'.

Mr Mustard said...

A question I tweeted earlier: is Mr James on annual leave at the moment as he isn't on council business?

Cneifiwr said...

I don't know Mr Mustard. There were at least 6 council officers in court today, not including Mark James.

In addition to the trial itself, there have been numerous meetings and conferences over the last year and a bit, all involving huge costs, and almost certainly during office hours.

When this is over, there will be some very interesting FOIs flying from any number of different sources.

Anonymous said...

Vote of no confidence at long last?

Anonymous said...

Any reports in CJ this week ?

Anonymous said...

Scathing editorial in today's The Times. The council has been 'arrogant....wielded excessive official and financial power against a lone citizen and has thereby become a case study in how not to behave in an era of transparency and accountability'.

The paper also refers to a couple of judgements which may be of interest: The Times v Derbyshire County Council and another by Judge Beatson in Cardiff last year.

Anonymous said...

Why are we paying for the welsh assembly who appear to do nothing to assist the citizens of wales? I understand various matters regarding Carms council have been placed before them for some time.... Well now Carmarthenshire didn't need 'flagship projects' to put it ON THE MAP did it.

Anonymous said...

I think a protest outside the Welsh Government Offices in Cardiff bay is in order!

Delyth Jenkins said...

To divert temp.

Interviewed by the Evening post yesterday. Excellent article included in today's edition of the Evening Post re. C.C.C, the Public Interest disclosure Act and whistleblowing.