It's a 'Mexican stand-off' for council in battle with auditor [South Wales Evening Post (Wales)]
(South Wales Evening Post (Wales) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) BOSS Carmarthenshire Council chief executive Mark James (left).
CARMARTHENSHIRE Council remains in a Mexican stand-off with the Wales Audit Office over the payment of pension contributions to its chief executive and a pledge to pay his court costs in a libel case against a blogger.
Wales Audit Office says an indemnity granted to council chief executive Mark James for libel action against blogger Jacqui Thompson was unlawful.
The row, which began after Mrs Thompson was arrested for filming a county council meeting on her phone, saw Mr James win the case -- leaving Mrs Thompson ordered to pay costs of Pounds 23,217.
But now the council-appointed auditor for the Wales Audit Office, Anthony Barratt, has told the authority it was wrong to grant indemnity to the chief executive to bring the libel counter-claim.
Another matter dubbed unlawful by the Wales Audit Office was remuneration totalling Pounds 16,353 paid to Mr James in lieu of employer pension contributions.
Carmarthenshire Council has said it acknowledged the views of the Wales Audit Office and was continuing discussions with them regarding these matters.
The council said it was advised that its payments to Mr James were lawful and they consulted the Wales Audit Office prior to any decision being taken.
At a meeting of the council's audit committee representatives from the Wales Audit Office said the council's finances were in good order apart from the two issues.
Chairman of the committee David Jenkins said the council and audit office were in a Mexican stand-off with both sides looking at the legal issues.
Committee member, Labour councillor Bill Thomas, said he was not prepared to sign off the audit report as being fully correct until matters had been sorted: We need a full investigation and this is just the beginning.
What about the hours paid to council officers who had spent time on these matters? If we paid for advice over the matters and the work associated with that advice was unlawful then the expenditure paid to offices from the public purse will result in a much higher overall cost than the figures we have now.
Council head of resources Roger Jones and Linda Rees Jones, head of administration and law, said they could not discuss details of either matters due to ongoing legal talks.
Keep up to date Read previous stories on this issue online southwales-eveningpost.co.uk Council 'followed the correct course of action' PRIOR to the audit meeting Carmarthenshire Council said it had sought independent legal advice on both issues and remained firmly of the view that it had followed the correct course of action.
A council spokeswoman said: We have sought independent legal advice from a leading QC on both issues and remain firmly of the view that we have followed the correct course of action.
Regarding the issue of the indemnity to an officer of the council to take action for libel, we would like to make it clear that we consulted the Wales Audit Office prior to the decision being taken in January 2012 and that it has taken almost two years for these concerns to have been expressed.
We have discussed the matter with them on several occasions and in August of 2012 they indicated, in response to questions from a third party, that they agreed that the council had the legal powers to grant the indemnity.
It is disappointing that they have now expressed a different view so late in the day, and too late for the council to act upon it. The council has a duty of care to protect its employees from unfair harassment and libel and the court judgement reinforced that opinion.
Regarding the pension contributions the spokeswoman added: We have also sought legal advice, and we do not agree that the council does not have the power to adopt this practice.
This policy could apply to any member of staff. We would also confirm the chief executive was not present in the meeting in which this decision was reached.
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