The Knowle “Flog It” scandal rumbles on

Recent Freedom of Information request:

“Dear East Devon District Council,

The following is a request in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Recently an email from a Conservative counsellor was released into the public domain regarding the purchase of a “very large table in the members room” as a result of “an auction of council furniture, chattels, etc” to the benefit of members and EDDC staff.

The email went on to state “I have been told that I have been successful in my bid so the table along with the 8’ extension is heading back to Exmouth to sit in (address of councillor), Exmouth in its rightful Town (some may say)” and then stated arrangements for its removal date in order that it could be used for the Councillor’s Christmas dinner for 22 family members.

Subsequently on 21st December 2018, the Leader of the Council made a statement about the disposal of a range of items, including this table. He said the large table “attracted little professional interest with one valuer estimate of just £50”.

I would like to know:

If one valuer’s estimate was £50, what were the other estimates?

What are the names of the valuers who gave estimates for the table?

Does EDDC audit not require a range and record of estimates for the disposal of council assets, as well as a record of disposals?

EDDC, like other councils, should have a written policy and procedure for the disposal of assets such as used equipment, furniture and other plant, What is that policy and procedure?

Who was the Councillor that successfully bid for “the very large table in the members room”?

How much did the Councillor pay?

Was the ornate clock on the mantel piece (as shown on the cover of the Residents Magazine, December 2018) part of this disposal process?

If so, what was the valuation given?

What price was paid?

Who bought this clock?

The Leader of the Council referred to proceeds of this sale and other sales going to the Chairman’s Civic Fund.

How much money was raised from this sale of “items of sentimental interest or practical use”?

What are the “other sales” Councillor Thomas refers to?

How much money was raised from each of these “other sales”?

What is the total now of the Chairman’s Civic Fund?

Information about the Chairman’s Civic Fund is not easily accessible on the EDDC website; a word search on the site produces “no result”. Where can details of this fund and its administration be found?

Yours faithfully,”

Tory councillor says you can’t try Vegan-uary in Shropshire!

And these people are running councils! Not to mention the conflict of interest as he “comes from a farming background”!

“A senior Tory councillor in Shropshire has called for adverts promoting veganism on buses to be removed because of the county’s agricultural tradition. Steve Charmley, the deputy council leader, posted a series of tweets about posters encouraging commuters to try ‘Veganuary’ – an animal product-free month – which were paid for by Shropshire Veggies and Vegans society.

He claimed that bus company Arriva was being inadvertently used to promote the “fake news of vegangalists” and called on bosses to meet him to discuss the issue. …”

That Knowle table … sold for £50?

Oh, er – been kicking off on Facebook page!

22 foot mahogany table with 8 foot extension (not sure if included in 22 foot or makes it 30 foot, but probably the latter). Rumour is it was “valued” and was sold for a winning bid of £50 (fifty pounds).

Most councils have a policy on this. Anyone seen East Devon”s?

Plundering of Knowle assets by councillors? Best value?

It appears that councillors and officers have been given first dibs of Knowle assets, in advance of the move to Honiton and one of them has rather jumped the gun on claiming his prize.

Is this best value or equitable, Owl ponders? As does at least one independent councillor.

Note: Neither of these emails were marked private and/or confidential when acquired by Owl.

From a well-known Conservative councillor:

Subject: Re; Large Table In Members Area

Dear Members and SMT,

Subject: Re; Large Table In Members Area

You will all be aware there has been an auction of council furniture, chattels etc of which I bid for a few bits and pieces.

I bid on behalf of my partner for the very large table in the members area along with the 20 green chairs that we all sit around.

I have been told that I have been successful in my bid so the table along with the 8’ extension is heading back to Exmouth to sit in (address of councillor), Exmouth in its rightful Town (some may say).

The relevance of my informing yourselves is that the rightful date of removal is end of January/ beginning of February when we finally ‘pull out of the Knowle.

I would apologise for the short notice but we have 22 family members to Christmas dinner and would like to pick the table up tomorrow as it appears it is the last day of our offices being open, which of course would mean I couldn’t collect it on Monday, 24th, as we will be closed.

We do have one or two meetings between the New Year and our final pull out but I feel it only right to ask members if indeed anybody felt offended if it was collected tomorrow on our last day.

I will fully respect any position any member may feel regarding it being removed earlier and would kindly request your thoughts.

If indeed it were removed earlier I have spoken to Simon Allchurch who feels we could put a few of the red tables on wheels in the place of the table and there is an array of chairs to use for members in the interim so it doesn’t look bare.

I must again apologise for the short notice but with the closing date being the 19th and all that goes with it at this time of year I would like to think you may grant me a little latitude (or not).

Best wishes and a Happy Xmas to one and all.”

And here is the response from an Independent councillor

“I feel I must reiterate my comment from when this started. Who authorised the ‘private sale’ of Council property to staff and members? Why are we not duty-bound to seek the best price at public auction? No-one answered my questions.

Will we ever know the proceeds of this internal sale for the public record?”

I strongly suspect that members of the public would be shocked to know that councillors have been able to buy items in this way. It is somehow appropriate that 22 family members will sit down to feast at this table, assuming the removal goes ahead.”

Auditing watchdog to be axed – not fit for purpose

“The watchdog which oversees Britain’s tainted auditors will be scrapped after it was branded a ‘ramshackle house’ in a report.

The Financial Reporting Council will be shut down and replaced with a new organisation under different leadership, after former civil servant Sir John Kingman uncovered a litany of problems.

Kingman’s findings – in a study commissioned by the Business Secretary Greg Clark – are a vindication for campaigners who have spent years warning the FRC is not up to the job.

Kingman, an ex-Treasury mandarin who is chairman of Legal & General, said the FRC lacks transparency, is too dependent on the goodwill of big auditors for funding and has been damaged by constant leaks of information.

In his report he calls for:

■ A new regulator with a beefed-up regime to take action against failing bean counters and much shorter investigations to minimise delay;

■ Blanket bans on accountants who join the watchdog from overseeing their former employers;

■ A requirement for auditors to report any serious financial problems at companies they oversee;

■ Powers for the regulator to boot out a firm’s auditor if they have concerns it is not doing a proper job.

The FRC has been slammed for repeatedly letting auditors off the hook over accounting scandals, from Tesco to failed bank HBOS.

It came in for criticism earlier this year after the collapse of outsourcer Carillion was missed by accountants.

Kingman said: ‘What this spotlight has revealed is an institution constructed in a different era – a rather ramshackle house, cobbled together with all sorts of extensions over time. The house is – just – serviceable, up to a point, but it leaks and creaks, sometimes badly.

‘The inhabitants of the house have sought to patch and mend. But in the end, the house is built on weak foundations. It is time to build a new house.’ “

“Berkeley Group [housing developer] bosses were accused of engaging in years of bribery”

Owl says: cannot recall using the category “Sleaze” so often as in the last few weeks.

“Bosses at the housebuilding firm Berkeley Group were accused of engaging in years of bribery with a partner at a major estate agent, according to papers filed in a pair of lawsuits brought against Berkeley by a former finance director in 2014 and 2015.

The claim was among numerous “whistleblowing” allegations by Nicolas Simpkin, 49, who served on the board of the £2.7bn turnover company from 2009 until he was fired in 2014.

Berkeley ​paid £9.5m ​to Simpkin​ in an out-of-court ​settlement​, according to the company’s annual report published in August. It also stated that the allegations had been withdrawn as part of the deal. On Wednesday, Berkeley said the settlement had been reached after it had “thoroughly” investigated the allegations and found them to be “unfounded”.

After an acrimonious dismissal in September 2014, Simpkin filed an unfair dismissal case the following December and then a 2015 breach of contract case in the high court.

According to court documents in the second case, Simpkin had made a series of whistleblowing allegations in his 2014 case, all of which were denied by Berkeley. The company argued that Simpkin had failed to raise and act on his claims. As the cases were settled, none of the allegations were ever tested and they remain unproven.

High court papers obtained by the Guardian and the investigative website Finance Uncovered show that Simpkin accused Berkeley’s chairman, Tony Pidgley, who earned £174m from the company over the previous decade, of being “consistently engaged in bribing one of the partners in a major estate agency with whom Berkeley Group regularly dealt in relation to land acquisitions” between 2005 and 2010.

The documents further ​detail how Simpkin claimed that “this bribery included” Pidgley “making expensive gifts” to the estate agency partner; extending a Berkeley loan to the same partner, which the housebuilder’s “managing director [Rob Perrins] later … instructed the then financial controller to write off”; and allowing Berkeley to carry out work at the estate agency partner’s property “without the partner being properly charged”.

According to the court papers Simpkin said he had been “staggered” when he was told in 2011 that the loan had been written off four years earlier.

While Simpkin withdrew his legal cases as part of the out-of-court settlement, the ​substance of the allegations remains in court filings because Berkeley Group used a 113-page high court defence document to dismiss its former director’s claims.

In those papers, Berkeley said the facts underpinning many of his allegations were wrong, as it also denied his claims that between 2005 and 2014:

• Pidgley benefitted from “around” £660,000 of Berkeley Group’s money that had been “intended to be used on fitting out” one of the chairman’s luxury London flats “on the pretence the flat was to be used as a show home”.

• Berkeley’s staff were “pressurised to make false claims to recover VAT in relation to [Pidgley’s] property”.

• There had been “inappropriate payments by the Berkeley Group” to Pidgley’s son.

• Perrins had “deliberately and unlawfully provided quantities of non-public and price sensitive information to a shareholder in May 2014”.

In its annual report published in August, Berkeley Group said: “During the period the company settled the proceedings brought by Mr Nicolas Simpkin, its former finance director, in the employment tribunal and high court. Under the settlement Berkeley made a payment of £4.95m to Mr Simpkin and a further payment of £4.55m towards his legal fees and disbursements.”

Simpkin, who was earning a base salary of £330,000 a year but who had pocketed a £1.2m package in the previous 12 months, was sacked in September 2014.

The court filings show that Berkeley’s board claimed he had been performing poorly in his role and had lost the confidence of senior colleagues.

If Simpkin had succeeded in his legal claims he would have been entitled to his share in a bonus scheme set up for Berkeley executives, which would have been worth many millions of pounds to him.

As well as denying all the whistleblowing claims, Berkeley said Simpkin had failed to raise any of the allegations with the group solicitor, the board or independent directors of the company.

The company added that if any of the allegations were true, Simpkin should and could have taken action, adding he would have been complicit in any criminal activity if his claims were accurate.

A Berkeley spokeswoman said the settlement dated back 18 months, adding: “There was a thorough and extensive investigation by a QC and a senior lawyer from a major law firm which concluded these allegations were unfounded, following which Mr Simpkin withdrew his allegations and settled all his claims.”

Simpkin said: “The counter-allegations made by Berkeley against me in the high court documents are unfounded, untested, plainly vexatious and risible … Following the payment of damages the court proceedings were withdrawn.

“I am bound by confidentiality terms which prevent me from making any comment on the other issues you raise.”