Former Southend council leader slams bribery probe as politically motivated

A former Southend Council leader was at the centre of a bribery probe when he took on the top job, it can now be revealed.

Conservative Tony Cox admitted more than £1,000 was deposited into a bank account, which he shares with his wife, by the Southend Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association.

A whistleblower alleged the money was a “bribe” from the association for Mr Cox to continue his opposition to Uber’s presence in the town.

However, a counter fraud team’s investigation ended on May 9 last year due to there being insufficient evidence to pass to the Crown Prosecution Service.

It concluded just seven days after Mr Cox was elected leader of the council, a position he held until June 4 when he was ousted by the current Labour-led coalition.

Mr Cox has submitted a seven-page letter to new council leader Ian Gilbert calling for an investigation.

He has branded the bribery allegation a “joke” and insisted council bosses need to look into “politically-motivated bullying and harassment”, sanctioning “illegal access and misuse of financial information” and “interference to the right to a private life”.

A Southend Council spokesman said: “This is an ongoing matter that is being dealt with in accordance with both the members code of conduct and staff code of conduct.

“We are currently seeking independent legal advice to determine the next steps and it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”

Mr Cox said his complaint was submitted “with regret” but he believes two council bosses – chief executive Alison Griffin and monitoring officer – John Williams – have “fallen short” of what is expected of them.

Mr Cox, who represents West Shoebury, said: “These are some very serious allegations that I’ve had to raise and naturally I am happy for there to be a full hearing so everything can be brought into the open.”

The drama began to unfold in April 2018 when a whistleblower told council bosses about a series of payments totalling £1,050 which had been transferred to a joint account in the name of Mr Cox and his wife from an account owned by the drivers’ association.

The transfers took place in July 2017.

The money was transferred to the councillor when he was leading a major campaign to stop Uber from operating in the town – a company which cabbies believed had been taking their trade away.

Despite council rules stating any “gift, benefit or hospitality” received by councillors worth more than £50 should be declared, Mr Cox did not make any formal declaration of the cash.

He insists he will not declare the money.

Mr Cox has defended the transfer of funds, and has reiterated it had nothing to do with his role as a councillor and was to help in paying his wife’s legal fees for an unrelated personal issue.

He says he should not be expected to declare money linked to his wife’s financial affairs.

‘It wasn’t Cllr Cox we were helping, it was our mate Tony’

The Taxi Drivers’ Association claims it was simply “helping out a mate” when it transferred cash into a joint bank account belonging to a leading Southend councillor.

Mark Jennings, secretary at Southend Taxi Drivers’ Association, insisted everything was above board and the money was not a bribe related to blocking Uber from working in Southend.

Mr Cox insists that he only became aware of the donation in March 2018, a full year after it was donated.

The councillor and his wife insist that the money was a kind donation in order to support Mr Cox’s wife in an unrelated legal issue.

Mr Jennings said: “It wasn’t Councillor Cox we were helping, it was our mate Tony.”

He said drivers had heard about the financial difficulty Mr Cox and his wife had fallen into and wanted to help, but as Mr Cox was always reluctant, the payment was made discreetly but through the association’s accounts to be transparent.

Mr Jennings added: “We did a whip round, said to Mrs Cox we would put it in her account and told her not to tell Tony.

“You can’t leave anyone to hang out to dry, not if you have the ability to do something about it.

“I could have paid it all in cash, the taxi business is a cash rich society, if I wanted to be devious why not just do it in cash? But I didn’t want to be devious, I wanted to be transparent.”

But leaked investigation documents show that after the whistleblower made the complaint to the council’s monitoring officer, John Williams, called for an investigation into Mr Cox’s finances.

In the investigation documents, it said Mr Cox faced allegations of “bribery, money laundering and misconduct in a public office”, putting him at risk of up to 24 years in prison, allegations that Mr Cox has called “half-baked”.

The senior Tory added: “It was because they didn’t like my stand that said Uber was working illegally in the town. It has been a witch hunt ever since.

“Someone came up with a half-baked accusation and went snooping down my bank accounts.”

He said the subsequent 13-month investigation was “unlawful” and the council should have notified the police if they suspected a criminal act.

It was carried out by Thurrock’s Counter Fraud team, supported by the Eastern Region Special Operations Unit, which focuses on tackling serious organised crime and terrorism across the East of England.

The counter fraud team’s investigation ended on May 9 due to there being insufficient evidence. It was the same day councillors voted in Mr Cox as leader of the council – a position he held until June 4 when he was ousted by the Labour-led coalition.

How Uber was banned from Southend

“They are not welcome here” councillor Tony Cox declared in June 2018 shortly after Uber had been banned from Southend.

He promised that if they ever tried to come back, he would fiercely oppose them.

Uber’s ban from operating in Southend came after a hard fought battle by the Conservative councillor and the Southend Licensed Taxi Drivers Association.

Together they had been campaigning to get the ride-hailing firm out of the town due to safety fears and the way that drivers had used a loophole in the law that allowed them to get a licence to pick up Southend passengers from Transport for London.

Drivers that did not have a legitimate licence were able to offer rides to residents while being completely unregulated by the local authority and duck out of strict safety rules.

Similar issues would later come back to haunt the company when Transport for London said at the end of November they would not renew Uber’s operator’s licence. Uber is appealing the decision.

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter