Monday, 17 July 2017

CPS drops prosecution of Jacqui Thompson

The decision by the CPS to drop a prosecution for harassment against fellow blogger Jacqui Thompson marks the end, for now, of more than 18 months of a carefully planned and orchestrated legal onslaught against her by Mark James, Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, although he has the right to request a review of the decision and may yet have more legal surprises up his sleeve.

During this period, Jacqui Thompson has had to endure two separate and very slow police investigations into allegations of criminal harassment, a separate allegation of perverting the course of justice, threats to return to the High Court for contempt of court, and civil proceedings to try to force the sale of her family home.

All of the legal actions initiated by Mr James have now failed, and all bar the attempt to seize the Thompsons' family home have been funded by the public purse, as has the rest of his extraordinary campaign against her, with the council now lumbered with hundreds of thousands of pounds of costs which it cannot recover, and untold additional resources and costs incurred by council staff, the police and the CPS.

The decision by the CPS to pull the plug on the latest case very late in the day calls into question the judgment of both that body and the police in deciding to bring a prosecution in the first place, and more questions are now being asked about what appears to have been the use of council staff and IT resources to produce "evidence" in pursuit of what Mr James now insists is a purely private matter.

Central to Mr James's case alleging criminal harassment is his witness statement, accompanied by a printout of Jacqui's blog. This extraordinary document runs to seven pages. Because the case will not now go to court, unless Mr James launches a successful appeal, the statement is not in the public domain. However, for anyone who has seen it, it is hard to believe that Dyfed Powys Police could have spent seven months, untold hours and significant amounts of money on investigating these allegations when even a cursory examination should have kicked the farce into touch very early in proceedings.


Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me

We now enter a bizarre world where nothing is quite what it seems, a world of paranoia and delusion, half truths, omissions and facts built on shifting sands. 

The first thing to say about the allegations of harassment is that they relate solely to Jacqui's blog. There is no suggestion that she has done anything else, although it has been put about in County Hall that there is something worse lurking in the undergrowth. If there were we would surely have heard about it by now, but the whispers have undoubtedly had an effect.

Mr James's statement kicks off with a general complaint that Jacqui Thompson has been waging a campaign against him through her blog.

He feels threatened, he says, before taking the police on a long detour containing edited highlights of his favourite bedtime reading, Mr Justice Tugendhat's verdict in the libel case, and the first complaint of harassment made in January 2016 which the police decided not to pursue after another 8 month investigation.

He had nothing to do with the decision by Dyfed Powys Police to issue her with a Police Information Notice, he tells Dyfed Powys Police, who could probably have worked that out for themselves.

Next up, Mr James notes that Jacqui Thompson did not react well to his decision to force the sale of the Thompson family home, and had sought to involve MPs, AMs and councillors. This was, he says, an attempt to bring pressure to bear on him to halt a private legal action which he had felt forced to bring.

In Mr James's view, he was entirely justified in bringing the action, and Jacqui Thompson had no right to complain. "I was mortified that Mrs Thompson was trying to get senior politicians to intervene in my private affairs". 

If the prosecution had gone ahead, the courts would have found themselves being asked to rule that by asking for help from elected representatives and encouraging others to do the same, a constituent could be guilty of a criminal offence.

A very public private affair

Even if Dyfed Powys Police headquarters had been suspended in deep sleep in the manner of Sleeping Beauty's castle for the last few years, a little light Googling should have been enough to convince its occupants that Mr James's "private affairs" were nothing of the kind. Approved and funded by the County Council, with key elements of the decision ruled unlawful by the Wales Audit Office, this was never a private matter. And the press archives are littered with quotes from the publicity-loving chief executive heralding Mr Tugendhat's verdict as a victory for councils everywhere, with Mr James telling council staff that he had done it all for them.

If the libel action succeeded, he told the Executive Board, he would pay his winnings over to the council, or possibly "good causes" he later told the press, before his lawyers told a judge that he could do whatever he liked with the money, including "stuffing it in the gutter".

Such are the shifting sands on which Mr James's arguments rest.

To Mr James's evident horror, two county councillors, Alun Lenny and Cefin Campbell, last year sought to bring a Motion calling on him and the council's Executive Board to find a compromise which would not make the Thompsons homeless and "enhance the reputation of this council".

"As it transpired", Mr James writes as if what happened next had nothing to do with him, the then chair of council, Cllr Eryl Morgan, had given a detailed ruling, including an extensive quote from Mr Justice Tugendhat, setting out why the Motion was not admissible.

Even Cllr Morgan's family and friends would have been surprised by his sudden in-depth knowledge of the Tugendhat verdict and the legal ins and outs of libel damages.

The rather more prosaic truth is that a furious Mr James was determined to have the Motion stuck down. The council's Head of Legal and Monitoring Officer, Mrs Linda Rees Jones, appointed by Mr James in a way which bypassed the need for the involvement of elected councillors in the appointment of a senior officer, was persuaded to issue a fatwa in Cllr Morgan's name, with the elderly councillor being reduced to a ventriloquist's dummy.

All of this had come about because of the interference of Adam Price AM, Mr James concludes, adding that this was something "I find to be intimidating".

Cock and bull

We are now on page 4 of Mr James's statement, and alert readers may have realised that so far Mr James has not presented the police with a single example of harassment by Jacqui Thompson.

The first actual example produced from the blog is a post about the Pembrey Park scandal, in which Jacqui pointed out the seriousness of the accusations and not unreasonably suggested that knowledge of them went right to the top. In short, there had been a cover-up.

Nonsense, says Mr James. The council had investigated the matter, referred it to the police, and an officer had been convicted by a court of law.

A cursory examination of this account would have shown the police that it was at best spin and a highly selective account of what actually happened down at Pembrey. The conviction of a council officer came about because of a complaint of  assault brought by the proprietor of the park café who was planning to take legal action against the council for the way in which it handled a shambolic and corrupted contract tendering process.

The prosecution related solely to the facts of the assault, and a recording exists of a very senior council officer pleading with a whistleblower not to go to the police about wider allegations of corrupt practices.

It won't cost you a penny
 
Next, Mr James takes the police on a brief trip to Boston, Lincolnshire, where he was chief executive before taking up his current position all those years ago.

Mr James's biggest legacy to Boston is what is now called the Princess Royal Sports Arena, a huge project built on a delusional business case which came to be a burden on local taxpayers.

Mr James departed Boston before the grandiose scheme was completed, and it subsequently attracted the attention of the Audit Commission which issued a report highlighting grossly inaccurate and wildly optimistic revenue forecasts, how councillors had been kept in the dark and how contract tendering procedures had not been adhered to.

True, the Audit Commission report named no names, and its purpose was to highlight lessons to be learned rather than act as an indictment.

According to Mr James's account to Dyfed Powys Police, he was not aware that the auditors had become involved, which suggests that their report and criticism somehow escaped his attention. Perhaps that might help explain Parc y Scarlets, cynics would say.

The man or woman on the Cilycwm omnibus may find it difficult to believe Mr James was unaware of the Audit Commission's involvement, but it seems that Dyfed Powys Police agreed that by linking the damning report to the council chief executive whose pet project this was, Jacqui Thompson merited prosecution for criminal harassment.

More examples now follow in quick succession. References to the controversial and heavily criticised Scarlets car park deal; a petition launched by a man in Trimsaran; a letter calling for Mr James's dismissal published in a local newspaper; Private Eye's decision to award Mr James its prestigious "Shit of the Year Award" and a protest outside County Hall by members of the public (but not Jacqui Thompson) involving a pig's liver are all evidence of harassment by Jacqui Thompson, Mr James tells the police.

It is all "draining, oppressive, distressing, harassing and intimidating", Mr James concludes after raiding the thesaurus for a list of adjectives.

It is also "distressing and humiliating" to have his private affairs brought to the attention of the council, "Cardiff Bay" and an MP.

You bet it is.

Own goal

Throughout the document, Mr James is at pains to make the police understand that Jacqui Thompson's "campaign" has been designed to damage his otherwise spotless reputation in the view of reasonable persons.

More perceptive readers than Dyfed Powys Police's finest may have spotted that this argument is more than slightly flawed because Mr James offers up numerous examples of how the press, politicians and members of the public have a rather less than flattering view of his virtues than he does himself. These include the pig's liver, an online petition, critical remarks made by politicians, letters to the editor, the "Shit of the Year" award and the outrageous Motion on Notice with its diplomatically phrased call for a compromise. Not to mention (which Mr James doesn't) a heavily subscribed petition from a couple of years back calling for him to be sent away empty-handed when he applied for voluntary redundancy and all of the other public criticism he has attracted over the years. Not forgetting other exhibits, such as a dead rat which a Carmarthen resident handed in at the reception desk in County Hall, for Mr James's attention.

As such, the witness statement is a spectacular own goal unless you believe that Private Eye, the press, councillors, MPs, AMs and numerous members of the public are all under the control of Jacqui Thompson, master criminal extraordinaire.

Alongside the argument about his tarnished reputation, the main thrust of the witness statement is to try to persuade Dyfed Powys Police that Jacqui Thompson was guilty of harassment by trying to deter him from exercising his legal right (to seize her home), something which amounted in his view to contempt of court:


I end my renewed complaint of harassment with Mr Justice Tugendhat's words in his Judgment which the Chair of County Council himself repeated when rejecting the Motion on Notice: "Pressure put upon a litigant to deter him from pursuing a legal right, or to punish him for having pursued a legal right, can be a Contempt of Court". I certainly regard it as also being harassment.

For the umpteenth time in the statement, Mr Justice Tugendhat is wheeled out of retirement, and Cllr Eryl Morgan is cited as a legal authority on the strength of an e-mail written by Mr James's legal protection squad.

The statement, dated 27 January 2017, came before a court hearing in March of this year when a judge sitting in the County Court ordered Jacqui Thompson to pay the chief executive £250 a month in return for being allowed to stay in her home.

By the time Dyfed Powys Police got round to making its very belated decision to prosecute, that ruling and Jacqui Thompson's compliance with it meant that Mr James's complaint was demonstrably invalid.

But they decided to press charges anyway.

Sigh of relief

That this complaint got as far as it did suggests that there may be some truth in the oft-repeated claims that elements within Dyfed Powys Police see themselves as Mr James's personal protection squad.

Had the matter gone to court, the outcome would almost certainly have been red faces at Dyfed Powys HQ and the CPS, and yet more damage to the council's reputation.

It is not just Jacqui Thompson and her family who are probably breathing a sigh of relief that someone in the CPS put a stop to this nonsense.











Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Something Nasty in the Woodshed - Updated



Update 8 July 2017

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald also notes that a council computer appears to have been used to trawl through Jacqui Thompson's blog just before Mr James went to Dyfed Powys Police with a complaint of harassment.

The newspaper notes that it would be "wholly inappropriatefor any officer to use council IT infrastructure to assist another officer in the preparation of a private legal matter, and that it would also be wholly inappropriate for any officer to ask or instruct another officer to do so".

The council failed to answer questions from the newspaper as to whether any officer or employee time was spent on checking the blog in the preparation of Mr James's complaint.

________________


There being no election campaigns to fret about, at least for the next few months, it is time to return to a subject which has preoccupied this blog ever since it first saw the light of day very nearly six years ago after Jacqui Thompson was arrested for filming a short snatch of a council meeting.

The dispute between Jacqui and the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council has now run on for rather longer then the Second World War, and it shows no signs of coming to an end.

Right from the very start, this has been a fight between, on the one hand, a woman armed with nothing more than a laptop, and the other the longest serving and most highly paid council official in Wales with friends in high places and access to what amounts to almost unlimited resources.

Having won the libel case and more recently gained control over Jacqui’s home, Mr James is now embarked on an attempt to drag her through the courts on charges of criminal harassment.

The first stop will be a visit to Llanelli Magistrates’ Court, now scheduled for 13th July, and unless the charges are dropped at the last minute, it is a near racing certainty that the case will move from there and go to trial, most likely somewhere towards the end of this year.

Representing Jacqui Thompson will be Matthew Paul, Cneifiwr’s favourite true blue fox bothering barrister and Herald columnist.

We have been here before – well, almost – because last year Mr James presented Dyfed Powys Police with a bundle of documents, believed to have been printouts from her blog. In what may or may not have been a coincidence, the documents were produced after IP addresses belonging to Carmarthenshire County Council spent days trawling through Jacqui’s blog.

Of course, it would be outrageous to suggest that council staff and resources were used to perform work for which a solicitor would have charged a small fortune because, as the council likes to remind everyone, this is an entirely private matter between Mr James CBE and a resident.

Except of course when Mr James was crowing to the world that his victory at the High Court was a victory for councils everywhere.

That first complaint ground slowly through the Dyfed Powys mill, and was eventually dropped, although Jacqui received a letter which, while it took no view on the validity of Mr James’s claims, stated that the police could act if further complaints were received.

Coincidentally, Cneifiwr understands that the Ombudsman for Public Services is still engaged in a less high profile investigation of complaints made by Mr James against former councillor Siân Caiach.

Just as with last year’s attempt to have Jacqui Thompson criminalised, Mr James had also previously sent a batch of complaints to the Ombudsman about Ms Caiach, only to be told to grow a thicker skin and have all five complaints dismissed.

Alert readers may at this point wonder who is paying for all these very slow-paced investigations and the days and weeks spent by council staff, police, CPS and the courts dealing with Mr James’s complaints of lese-majeste.

We are, of course.

One of the many ironies of this sorry tale is that Mr James, who famously takes a very dim view of any criticism or complaints levelled at his leadership, should be such an avid complainant in his own cause.

In the case of Siân Caiach and the Ombudsman, the irony-meter is close to melt-down because recent history is littered with examples of Mr James’s exasperation and barely concealed anger at critical reports produced by Peter Tyndall, the previous holder of that office which is supposed to champion the rights of Dai bach against government and council Goliaths.

Fortunately for Mr James, Tyndall’s successor in the office, Nick Bennett, appears to have drastically reinterpreted his role, to the delight of downtrodden Goliaths across Wales and the despair of everyone else seeking redress.

Readers of this blog and other publications invariably hold their hands up at this point and ask where in this unending saga are our councillors, and why they seem content to go on employing a chief executive who dragged them into this morass.

There are almost as many explanations for this as there are councillors, a good many of whom still believe that Mr James was sent to lead them to the Promised Land. Others are more sceptical, but have been persuaded to keep quiet.

But we now have a new council with a fresh intake; it will be interesting to see if the newly elected councillor for Lliedi, Rob James, follows up his pre-election promises in the press to get Mr James suspended any time soon. We wait with bated breath.

How Mr James will fare in the courts, we will have to see, but one of the mysteries which may just be solved is what if any difference there was between last year’s unsuccessful complaints to the police and this year’s crop of grievances, and what has persuaded the police and CPS to bring a prosecution after all this time.

Whether the prosecution case amounts to anything more than a sheaf of blogposts criticising Mr James’s rule in Carmarthen and exercising those quaint rights to freedom of expression enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, we will have to see.

On a number of occasions Cneifiwr has heard whispers emanating from County Hall that there is more to the Jacqui Thompson case than meets the eye. Sensible councillors, it is hinted, will steer well clear of getting involved because the, ahem, facts, vouchsafed to very, very few show matters in a different light.

Perhaps this dark truth about the Wicked Blogger of Llanwrda which has so far uncharacteristically been kept under wraps will finally emerge blinking into the harsh light of the court room. 

Or rather more likely it will remain hidden from mortal eyes like a local government version of the Ark of the Covenant somewhere in the inner sanctum on Jail Hill, from whence it will continue to be used to crush the heretical thoughts of councillors who ask awkward questions.

It’s all a bit reminiscent of that 1930s masterpiece, Cold Comfort Farm, where Aunt Ada Doom constantly complains that she “saw something nasty in the woodshed” sixty-nine years ago when she was no bigger than a titty wren. 

Or as psychiatrists would put it rather more prosaically, Aunt Ada was suffering from a traumatic fallacy which she projected onto her brood, the Starkadder family, and as a result had them all running around bringing her five meals a day and doing whatever she wanted.

As Flora Post, the heroine of Cold Comfort, puts it when she confronts the old tyrant:

Any attempt by any of them to get away from the farm made one of your attacks of madness come on. It was unfortunate in some ways but useful in others . . . The woodshed incident had twisted something in your child-brain seventy years ago. And seeing that it was because of that incident that you sat here ruling the roost and having five meals a day brought up to you as regularly as clockwork, it hadn’t been such a bad break for you, that day you saw something nasty in the woodshed.

“I saw something nasty in the woodshed, and now everything depends on me”, Aunt Ada replies.