Corrupt council repairs men in plea for leniency

Charles Owenson, left, and   James Costello face 'significant' jail sentences. Picture: Julie Bull

Charles Owenson, left, and James Costello face 'significant' jail sentences. Picture: Julie Bull

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Corrupt council officials and builders in the city’s property care scandal made a desperate plea for leniency before being jailed by an exasperated sheriff – who branded some of their excuses “preposterous”.

Former local authority officers Charles Owenson and James Costello, and ex-directors of Action Building Contracts Ltd (ABC Ltd) Kevin Balmer and Brendan Cantwell, were warned they should expect a “significant” sentence for an elaborate fraud scheme.

Owenson, of Drum Brae Neuk, and Costello, of Crosswood Crescent, Balerno, were treated to £30,000 of hospitality – including football matches and drinks in lap-dancing bars – as valuable council repair contracts were secured through bribery.

They also splashed the cash on expensive cars including an Audi and a Mercedes.

Balmer and Cantwell, from Tantallon Gardens and Bankton Gardens respectively, in Livingston, exchanged the rewards for repair work on council-owned buildings such as schools, care homes and libraries.

They even charged the council for the bribes – by inflating invoices by £67,000 for completed repairs.

It emerged yesterday that Cantwell is a director of Action Scaffolding, which has an outstanding contract with the council – but city chiefs insisted they would take action to bring it to an “immediate end”.

All four dressed in dark suits as they returned to the dock, having admitted the charges against them last month.

In an address lasting around half an hour, Owenson’s defence solicitor advocate, Maurice Smyth, told Edinburgh Sheriff Court that his client and Costello had been under “extreme pressure” due to cutbacks in the council’s property care services team.

Mr Smyth said: “ABC was the choice, it was a no-brainer. It was a one-stop shop.”

He said Owenson, 62, pocketed £28,387 of cash bribes – which he tried to conceal by buying a Mercedes ML320 and a Peugeot 207 – as a “hospitality substitute”. He added: “He wasn’t interested in football, drinking or fantasy nightclubs. He didn’t think he was hurting the council. He thought he was ensuring that the council got the best.”

Sheriff Michael O’Grady interjected several times to question Mr Smyth, who said Owenson “understood the money because he was working flat out . . . with the wonderful co-operation of ABC”.

Sheriff O’Grady said: “With the greatest respect, that is preposterous.”

Mr Smyth also argued the bribes were a “minimal return” compared with the £873,000 value of the contracts he handed to ABC. He added: “It’s something like £500 a week for five years.”

Costello’s defence solicitor advocate, Vincent Belmonte, said his client was promoted “well above his level” with no training. He said Costello, who had worked at the council since 1990, had viewed the bribes “as a tip” for allocating the contract work.

Mr Belmonte said the father-of-two has a history of mental illness and stress, and struggled to find work since being dismissed by the council. The 44-year-old had also claimed that the Audi TT Quattro, Toyota Corolla and Jeep Cherokee cars he bought to conceal the £14,134 of cash bribes had been partly funded by “homers” – cash-in-hand decorating jobs.

Mr Belmonte added: “He allowed himself to be tempted and this had a catastrophic effect.”

Cantwell, 44, remains a director of Action Scaffolding, which still has an outstanding scaffolding agreement for a property in the city centre.

His agent also presented the court with character references about the Livingston father-of-two, and said he was “otherwise a valuable member of society” as an employer and charity supporter.

A city council spokesman said: “A legacy arrangement remains in place [with Action Scaffolding] regarding one property, which, in light of last month’s guilty verdict, we are taking legal advice on bringing to an immediate end.”

The court also heard that Balmer, 52, was “logistically” prepared for a custodial sentence, but not mentally prepared.

Sheriff O’Grady said: “It’s clear to me that the sentences require to be custodial and they require to be significant.”

He remanded the men in custody ahead of their sentencing tomorrow morning.

HOW THEY DID IT

• Owenson and Costello allocated work orders to ABC Ltd valued at a total of almost £1.5 million.

• Owenson was linked to 102 suspicious orders and Costello was connected to a further 73.

• Balmer was regularly seen putting cash in the top drawer of his desk in envelopes.

• The men would meet in a glass-fronted room at the ABC offices, and the blinds would be drawn.

• Balmer and Cantwell also kept a tally of bribes.