Carmarthenshire Council's costs promise in blogger libel row 'unlawful'
A PLEDGE by Carmarthenshire Council to cover the court costs of its chief executive fighting a libel case against a blogger, were unlawful, auditors have said.
The Wales Audit Office says indemnity granted to chief executive Mark James for libel action against Jacqui Thompson was unlawful.
The row, which began after Ms Thompson was arrested for filming a county council meeting on her mobile phone, saw Mr James win the case leaving Ms Thompson ordered to pay costs of £23,217.
But now 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 which incurred more than £23,000 of expenditure.
Another matter dubbed unlawful by the Wales Audit Office was remuneration totalling £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 officials regarding these matters.
The authority 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 Carmarthenshire Council spokeswoman said: “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 spokeswoman said its own independent legal advice confirmed its view that the council was fully entitled to grant the indemnity, and the outcome of the court case and the comments of the judge in that case further reinforce its opinion that it acted properly.
“So far as the payment in lieu of employer’s pension contributions is concerned, this has not incurred any additional cost to the council or the local taxpayer,” she said.
“Instead of paying into the employee’s pension scheme we have agreed simply to make a payment directly to them of an equivalent amount, and it is then for them to make their own arrangements as they see fit.
“This situation has been brought about by changes in tax rules which make it difficult for people earning above a certain level to remain in the occupational pension scheme.
“We believe there are numerous other employers including local authorities, universities and housing associations who have adopted the same practice.
“The decision was made having obtained expert advice from independent consultants.”
The council spokeswoman added the authority had also sought independent legal advice, and did not agree that the council did not have the power to adopt the practice.