Council admits staff lied but vow to probe fraud claims

Cameron House. Picture: Toby Williams
Cameron House. Picture: Toby Williams
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CITY leaders have admitted that council officials told “lies” and were guilty of “deliberate” wrongdoing in their dealings with a community centre caught in a dirty tricks row.

And they have declined to confirm whether any employee has been disciplined or punished in the ten years since staff at Cameron House in Prestonfield raised complaints.

But they vowed today to the get to the bottom of the controversy which has been linked to historic claims of fraud at an arms-length council company.

We revealed yesterday that the council had decided to reopen an investigation into the fraud allegations after it emerged that the informant was never interviewed.

City chiefs will also publish a redacted version of their report into the Cameron House situation in a bid to restore trust.

Fresh revelations emerged during an emotional meeting on Tuesday between the Cameron House management committee and council bosses including deputy chief executive Alastair Maclean, director of communities and families Gillian Tee and acting property manager Peter Watton.

It has been alleged that complaints about botched redevelopment work at the centre were not dealt with.

Mr Maclean admitted during the meeting that he was “embarrassed” at the way in which Cameron House staff had been treated.

Individuals based at the centre were allegedly subjected to subterfuge, including faked e-mails and a council surveyor posing as a member of the public to gain covert access to the building and discredit management claims that the floor needed to be replaced.

It is believed that reported problems at the centre are linked to the case of a whistleblower who raised concern about the alleged misspending of nearly £400,000.

The allegations – circulated by e-mail in late 2002 – related to Edinburgh Lifelong Learning Partnership (ELLP) and work carried out in Cityconnect, its IT and social inclusion project.

The issues at Cameron House were the result of allies of the informant working there, according to claims.

Those suggestions were challenged during the meeting by Ms Tee, who issued an apology for “failings” in how the council has run services but said an audit found “no evidence” of a link between the whistleblowing case and Cameron House.

Acknowledging the “raw emotion” of those attending, Mr Maclean told the meeting: “I am not content with the way the original whistleblowing investigation was carried out. So I have instructed that it is re-looked at. I agree ‘mistakes’ is the wrong word. There was deliberate action.”

He added: “Let’s not hide from it. I am embarrassed about it.

“You assume no-one is being held accountable and that is not what we are saying. As a Monitoring Officer, I get people to go away and investigate, that has happened, then the next step is how that is followed up on.

“I am not happy with what happened in [the] whistleblowing investigation, that must be re-opened and I am doing that, it is the right thing to do.

“I see the problems and the lies, someone needs to follow all that through – if people have moved on or if there is no evidence it is difficult, but if not then we can do something.”

Moira O’Neill, chair of the Cameron House management committee, said: “A public apology in the newspaper for past mistakes is not enough.

“The word ‘mistake’ is insulting. Nothing that happened here was a mistake. For example, doctoring an e-mail is planned, when you send someone into a building incognito to rubbish the idea a new floor is needed, that is planned.”

The council’s response

“WE had a very open and honest conversation with the Cameron House management committee, where we acknowledged the significant failings of the council in relation to the property issues some years ago.

“We also acknowledged the excellent work of the centre and the volunteers and recognised that trust and confidence needs to be rebuilt.

“We explained that the investigation carried out by the monitoring officer is just the first step in the process and that management action would follow in order to implement all the findings set out in the report, and that we wanted to work with the management committee in agreeing an action plan going forward.

“Obviously, in relation to staffing issues, these must remain confidential given our legal obligations as an employer, but we sought to reassure the management committee that all relevant management action would be taken forward.

“This matter will be looked at again at the governance, risk and best value committee tomorrow and a clear five-step plan for taking this forward will be proposed. We are reopening the whistle blowing investigation and will seek to achieve a swift and decisive conclusion.

“Recognising that confidence needs to be restored and the desire to be open and transparent on this matter, we committed to consider whether we could make available the findings of the report in a manner that is consistent with our legal obligations.

“We can now confirm that we intend to make public a redacted version of the report next week.”