7th Dec, 2016

Coventry council ethics committee to reconvene on Sky Blues' complaint of 'whitewash' over 'smear campaign'

Les Reid 22nd Feb, 2016 Updated: 28th Oct, 2016

THE council’s ethics committee is set to reconvene and decide on whether council leaders broke its code of conduct in a ‘media war’ at taxpayers’ expense against Sky Blues’ owners Sisu amid the Ricoh Arena dispute.

The committee of five councillors is expected to reconvene next Monday (February 29) at the Council House, in a meeting open to the public.

The initial hearing was adjourned in December after the committee heard evidence of secret plans to wage a ‘media war’ with personal and intrusive public attacks against the Sky Blues ‘owners’.

But – despite much evidence from private council emails and documents, and emails by hired PR firm Weber Shandwick – the council-hired investigator Simon Goacher claimed it did not present enough “reasonable suspicion” for him to seek further evidence of any links between council leaders and a ‘smear campaign’.

November’s meeting generated much debate of Sky Blues’ fans’ internet forums. Many fans remain unhappy about the Ricoh’s sale to London Wasps in October 2014 on a cut-price 250-year lease not offered to the club.

The Sisu group of companies owning Coventry City Football Club, and Sisu boss Joy Seppala, lodged a complaint in May alleging Labour council leaders John Mutton and his successor Ann Lucas, who took over in May 2013, had breached the councillors’ code of conduct.

It obliges them to act with honesty, respect, openness, transparency and integrity.

The council hired Mr Goacher of law firm Weightmans LLP cleared both of wrongdoing, triggering the Sky Blues’ companies’ appeal to the ethics committee and complaints of a “whitewash”.

The ethics committee comprises four councillors from the ruling Labour party, and one Tory.

Heavily redacted (censored) emails in 2012 and 2013 between Weber Shandwick staff, copied in to senior council figures, revealed plans for highly personal attacks including Press visits to Ms Seppala’s London address. It was at the height of an acrimonious dispute with then Ricoh Arena company Arena Coventry Limited’s (ACL) two owners – the council and the Alan Edward Higgs Charity.

Committee chair, Labour backbencher Joe Clifford, ruled the Sisu lawyers could present additional evidence.

That additional material included a council briefing document in October 2012 which states: “Council/Higgs/ACL clearly winning the media war.”

It also states: “ACL have appointed Weber Shandwick – a leading PR agency to manage and co-ordinate comms for ACL and shareholders.”

The council and Higgs charity were the two equal shareholders – and ACL directors included council executives Martin Reeves and Chris West.

We highlighted in November another private email by then council finance officer Lisa Commane in late 2012, which stated a briefing from the council’s cabinet of Labour leaders had resulted in an “endorsement” for a “media war”.

Sisu’s lawyers questioned why Mr Goacher had not followed up much of the evidence they presented, saying it was his job to investigate further.

Ms Seppala alleges the council leaders’ conduct had been inappropriate in meetings, which minutes stated had been positive in 2012, with a view to Coventry City FC buying in to the Ricoh Arena company and having more crucial revenues to support the team.

Sisu’s lawyers also pointed to media quotes by Coun Mutton in which he stated the council would never sell to Sisu – and that Coun Lucas had made a private proposition that “hell freezes over” before a deal with Sisu – to show they had not acted with integrity, honesty and openness.

Councillor Lucas had publicly claimed the door was always open for the Sky Blues concerning the Ricoh.

Emails from Mr Reeves show how he was pleased with how certain local media got on board with the council’s media strategy at the time the council agreed in private a £14.4million taxpayer bailout of the Ricoh Arena company, after the Sky Blues had withheld what many considered sky high rent payments.

The additional documents considered by the ethics committee also included Court of Appeal judges’ comments in July that cast doubt over a earlier judicial review ruling by Justice Hickinbottom, which had found the council’s £14.4m loan was not unlawful.

A full hearing was heard earlier this month in the Court of Appeal, and the judge’s judgement is awaited.

Mr Goacher said in November it was “difficult to nail down what the complainants were complaining of.. and how it related to the two members” (council leaders).

He add Mr West, Mr Reeves and council PR boss Fran Collingham had all accepted they had dealings with Weber Shandwick, but “on the ACL side”.

Yet Ms Collingham had no responsibility for ACL.

The Weber Shandwick emails also show one to Weber Shandwick staff boasted in 2014 that the “job was done” on Ms Seppala in the earlier stages of the dispute.

The full evidence and Goacher report is available by following this link..

The fully investigation report can be found here…

http://democraticservices.coventry.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=161&MId=10965