THE whistleblower who raised the alarm about mismanagement and potential fraud at an arms-length council company was the victim of “cruel and sinister” treatment by the local authority, according to a former city leader.
The council even tried to sack John Travers after he raised concerns about the alleged misspending of nearly £400,000, Donald Anderson, city leader for seven years, has claimed.
The treatment of Mr Travers has been linked to alleged dirty tricks carried out by council officials at Cameron House Community Centre, Prestonfield, in a report by a PricewaterhouseCoopers auditor for the local authority.
It has been alleged that complaints about botched building work at the centre were not dealt with.
Staff 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.
The treatment of the community centre was the result of allies of Mr Travers working there, according to claims.
Mr Travers’ 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 allegations led to a disciplinary hearing against Mr Travers, which Mr Anderson today described as based on a “tissue of untruths”.
An employment tribunal also took place after which the city council was ordered to pay £5000 in compensation to Mr Travers, with officials criticised for concentrating on finding the source of the claims rather than pursuing them.
Tribunal chiefs also said there “were sufficient straws in the wind to lead [Mr Travers] to believe that all was not as it should be”.
Mr Anderson was warned he could not intervene due to ongoing legal and disciplinary issues involving Mr Travers which were not resolved when the then-Labour member left the council in May 2007.
Former council leaders Ewan Aitken, who sat on the ELLP board, and Jenny Dawe said they did not have sufficiently detailed knowledge of the case and declined to offer comment. Mr Travers could not be reached for comment.
City bosses today stressed that they had since overhauled the council’s whistleblowing service, becoming the first local authority in Scotland to introduce a third party-run system.
Mr Anderson said: “I do remember this case extremely well as I was closely involved in most aspects of it after the issues were raised with me when I was council leader.
“I took the view that the anonymous complaint should be investigated and passed the information on to the Education Department.
“The matter was reported to the council and at that time a report concluded that fraud hadn’t taken place. That said, I have always thought that the motives for raising the concern were genuine and the complaint made in good faith.
“Unfortunately, what transpired was that disciplinary action was raised by education officers. In my view that was a huge error of judgement, and resulted in significant council resources being used in pursuit of what ultimately proved to be a complete waste of everyone’s time. I was advised on a number of occasions that I couldn’t be involved in a personnel issue as an elected member, and that I accepted.
“However, when the Corporate Services department sought to prevent me from appearing as a defence witness at the disciplinary hearing I set that advice aside and told the hearing that what he had done was indeed ‘whistleblowing’.
“It remains my view that seeking to dismiss John Travers from his employment was a cruel and sinister response to a genuine complaint, and the case concocted against him by the Education and Corporate Services departments can only be described as a tissue of untruths. Officers involved in that travesty should hang their heads in shame.
“Fortunately, Mr Travers was not dismissed and, after a lengthy wrangle, we were able to arrange his transfer to another department where he could continue working without any dark cloud hanging over his reputation. In my opinion the only officer involved in the case who emerged with his reputation intact was Mr Travers.”
He added: “If the council or employers want to see an object lesson on how not to respond to whistleblowing, then they need only take a cursory glance at this case.
“I cannot comment on issues at Cameron House Community Centre, except to say that councillors of all parties invested in a new community centre there because it was, and still is, one of the best community centres in Edinburgh, if not Scotland. With regard to the allegations of fraud, I can only say that the council is quite right to say that if there is new information, or if there is information that was not considered when compiling the 2006 report, then the matter should be looked at again.”
A council investigation into Mr Travers’ claims concluded there was “no evidence” that funds had been misappropriated.
Councillor Jeremy Balfour, governance, risk and best value leader, said: “The new and strengthened whistleblowing approach was enforced by politicians as a direct response to historical concerns about whistleblowing and we are the first local authority in Scotland to do this. As demonstrated in the secure concerns raised, investigated and acted upon with regards to Castlebrae Community High School, this approach is proving successful.”