The controversial company Arch may have been replaced four months ago, but it continues to cast a long shadow over Northumberland County Council.
Last Friday (March 22), councillors on the authority’s audit committee called for an outside police force to look at matters relating to finance and governance at the wholly council-owned development company, after Northumbria Police concluded that ‘no criminal offences have been identified’.
It came at a special meeting to discuss a 98-page internal audit report, which raised a number of concerns, including hospitality spending, ‘unduly generous’ packages for consultants, nepotism and relationships with external contractors, companies and Ashington Community Football Club.
And one of these issues – the previously-revealed purchase by Arch of the then chief executive Peter McIntyre’s house at Hepscott for £395,000 in 2016 – forms a key part of an employment tribunal, which started on Tuesday (March 26).
Paul Czerepok, Arch’s former finance director, signed off on this purchase and was later sacked for gross misconduct based on governance, but he is claiming unfair dismissal.
He says his suspension and subsequent dismissal were ‘politically motivated’, following the Conservative administration, which had pledged to ‘scrap Arch’ in its manifesto, taking power after the May 2017 elections.
Mr Czerepok also claims he suffered a detriment due to his whistle-blowing, in that he spoke up against the way Arch and the previous board were being talked down to both the new council leader, Peter Jackson, and chief executive, Daljit Lally, who are named respondents in the case.
Along with this pair, he also suggests that the chairman of Arch, now Advance Northumberland, Coun Richard Wearmouth; Coun Wayne Daley, another board member; Chris Sayers, a board member who carried out the disciplinary hearing; and Kelly Angus, the council’s deputy chief executive and head of HR, were also involved.
“I think they will all have had a role to play,” said Mr Czerepok. “I think they were all politically motivated.”
Under cross-examination from Seamus Sweeney, representing the respondents, Mr Czerepok said that he didn’t believe the purchase of Mr McIntyre’s house needed to be investigated and ‘if anyone asked the circumstances of that, I would have happily told them’.
However, having been taken through the chain of events and emails which raise serious questions about the circumstances of the deal, he later conceded that ‘in hindsight, I could have gone down different routes’, in relation to the assurances he sought once he discovered whose house it was.
“Some people may see it as not good governance,” he added.
All the council representatives mentioned above were in attendance as the hearing began on Tuesday, along with fellow Conservative councillors Nick Oliver and Cath Homer plus the former chief executive of Northumberland County Council, Steve Mason, who is a witness.
The tribunal, which is expected to last two weeks, continues.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service