No evidence of corrupt activity, say Merton Council auditors

Wimbledon Guardian: Merton Council Merton Council

Corruption claims against senior officers in Merton Council by whistleblowers have been rejected by an independent auditor today.

Tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money has been spent investigating allegations that a senior officer made unlawful payments of £1.29m of taxpayers’ money to hire external consultants were made on November 14 last year.

A whistleblowing dossier, purported to be from anonymous council officers, alleged malpractice, corruption and unlawfulness in relation to the procurement of a number of consultants.

The whistleblowers claimed the council’s chief executive Ged Curran and elected members were deliberately misled by a senior officer they accuse of unlawfully making payments of £1.29m.

The payments were alleged to be to temporary consultants, when posts could have been filled by permanent staff.

Investigators seized documentary evidence from the accused on November 22, after the council contracted auditors Ernst & Young LLP to look into accusations.

But after conducting a series of interviews in December and January, auditors decided there was no reason to investigate further, at an additional cost to the council, and dropped the case.

The next phase would have been to electronically analyse staff equipment. However, the council has been advised to change the rules by which external consultants are employed.

Councillor Mark Allison, finance minister for the Labour administration, said: "It's great news that all our staff have been cleared from any wrong-doing and the investigators have no reason to take the investigation any further."

"At no stage have any rules been broken by our staff, however the rules in place need to be tightened up."

Merton's Ukip leader Suzanne Evans said: "Why doesn't that surprise me.

"They haven't investigated it properly.

"We know they said it was too costly to carry on investigating. Until my questions are answered I won't let it rest.

"Six people have put their jobs on the line to get the story out and I think they deserve better than a half-hearted investigation that has drawn a blank."

Shas Sheehan, Wimbledon Liberal Democrat parliamentary spokesperson said: "I haven't seen the report.

"Where does that leave the whistleblowers?

"You wouldn't go public with something like this unless you have something.

"I want to make sure the whistleblowers are fully protected."

Paul Evans, solicitor and monitoring officer for Merton Council, said: "Ernst & Young spent two to three weeks doing 'phase one', looking at council work and paperwork available.

"They made a report of their findings and it was then they recommended that they should interview all people referred to in the allegations.

"They conducted interviews with eight people which they concluded on January 24.

"They concluded that they had not got evidence of corrupt activity."

Mr Evans said the total cost of the investigation was £33,000, which will be paid out of the monitoring officer's budget.

The full report by Ernst & Young LLP will be published on the council website on Friday, February 28.


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