COVENTRY council’s ethics committee had today cleared leaders of breaking its code of conduct in a ‘media war’ at taxpayers’ expense against Sky Blues’ owners amid the Ricoh Arena dispute.
The committee – of four councillors from the ruling Labour group (Joe Clifford, John McNicholas, Linda Bigham and Damian Gannon) and one Tory, Allan Andrews – ruled there was insufficient evidence.
An 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 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. In January 2013, the council secretly bailed out the Ricoh Arena company Arena Coventry Limited (ACL) with £14.4million of taxpayers’ money amid subsequently failed attempts to oust the club’s owners who had refused to make high rent payments, in a dispute which was to cost the team 20 league points.
The Sisu group of companies owning Coventry City Football Club, and Sisu boss Joy Seppala, lodged a complaint last 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”.
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.
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 December another private email by then council finance officer Lisa Commane on December 7, 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.
Today’s hearing heard more evidence that council chief executive Mr Reeves appeared to be pleased that the then Coventry Telegraph editor Alun Thorne appeared to be on board with the council’s media strategy.
The paper had obtained a leak that the council was set to bail out the Ricoh Arena company it part-owned using taxpayers’ money in January 2013. But the editor agreed to totally suppress publishing anything about the deal until the £14.4million loan was agreed and signed in private by councillors, giving the public no opportunity to scrutinise it in advance.
Sisu lawyer Fiona Lawrence told today’s hearing: “Councillors were aware of what was being done on the PR front.”
She said the committee must order further investigations as any conclusion on the limited investigation conducted by Mr Goacher would be “unsound”.
Tory councillor Allan Andrews questioned if Mr Goacher had made further inquiries – beyond interviewing councillors and council officers involved – about the Commane email on December 7, 2012 which had stated leading councillors in the cabinet in an informal meeting had “endorsed the media war” and to “go on the attack” while hiring the PR firm.
Coun Andrews asked Mr Goacher if he had, for example, requested minutes of the meeting. Mr Goacher admitted he had not, claiming it was his experience that minutes were not kept for such meetings. The revealing Commane email also stated council leaders would not “hang out to dry” executive officers Mr Reeves and Mr West, who would have full cabinet backing.
Coun Andrews also asked whether Mr Goacher had tried to discover which councillors attended that meeting, and whether Mr Goacher had inquired further about aspects of the Weber Shadwick emails, which are heavily redacted (censored).
He also challenged Mr Goacher’s conclusion that the two council leaders had not infringed the council’s code of conduct because they were entitled to freedom of expression under human rights legislation. “If that’s always the case, what’s the point of having a code of conduct?’ added Coun Andrews.
Mr Goacher claimed some remarks in the media by Coun Mutton – including his reference to a claim in Parliament by Bob Ainsworth MP that Sisu had ‘greed running through its DNA’ – came “close to the line” in infringing the code’s commitments to treating others with respect.
Mr Goacher claimed his investigation had been “thorough and proportionate”. He several times re-interated that he saw no reason why claims made by Couns Lucas and Mutton, and others, in his interviews with them were not true, and therefore no further investigation by him was warranted.
He accepted the language of ‘media war’ and ‘going on the attack’ was not particularly appropriate, but he said it had been used in the context of the council’s perceived threat from Sisu to the council’s stake in the Ricoh project.
Ms Lawrence for Sisu pointed out Coventry City Council had failed in its usual protocol of fully notifying the public on its website of today’s meeting until Friday last week. Councillors conceded this, and accepted the full documentation was still unavailable on the council’s website, while other scheduled meetings were listed weeks in advance.
Coun Lucas, who was sitting close to Sisu’s Joy Seppala this morning, declined to comment saying Mr Goacher’s remarks were sufficient.
Coun Mutton challenged Mr Goacher’s conclusion that he had ‘technically breached’ council rules by not declaring an interest as a trustee of the Alan Higgs Centre Trust, which was separate to the Alan Edward Higgs Charity. Mr Goacher said he did not believe the technical breach would have “had any influence on the decision-making process.”
Coun Mutton denied ever being ‘rude’ or taking part in a ‘smear campaign’, and said: “It is still my genuinely held belief that the decisions we took were the right ones and the comments I made were accurate.”
He accepted he had shouted “Sisu Out” at a Coventry City match, but said he did so as a fan, not as a councillor.
He claimed a deal for CCFC to buy the Higgs Charity’s 50 per cent stake in the Ricoh Arena was frustrated by owners Sisu not producing a business plan for the future, at a time when his boyhood team was being run down.
Justice Leggatt in July 2014 had concluded any prospect of a deal over the Higgs shares had “fallen away” by August 2012 because no side appeared to want to reach agreement on the terms. The Higgs charity later sold its shares to Wasps for around half the £6.5million quoted at the time, when Sisu had provisionally offered £2million.
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.
Ethics committee chairman Joe Clifford announced this afternoon that it had ruled there was no evidence that either Coun Mutton or Lucas had “instigated a smear campaign”; that media comments by Coun Mutton had not amounted to a breach of the code of conduct; neither had failed to make decisions in an objective and unbiased way; that neither leader had made comments which were inappropriate and defamatory against the code’s requirements; and that Coun Mutton did not need to declare his interest in the Higgs Centre trust.
The Goacher investigation report and some of the documents before today’s hearing can be found here…