Southend Tories rally behind leader over calls for chief exec investigation

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Senior Conservative councillors have rallied behind the leader of their party over calls to investigate the conduct of the council’s top bosses for launching an investigation into an alleged bribe.

Tory councillors have backed group leader Councillor Tony Cox’s calls for an investigation into the legality of a probe that was launched into his financial affairs after £1,050 was paid to a joint account from the Southend Licenced Taxi Drivers Association.

It was carried out by Thurrock Council’s Counter Fraud team on behalf of Southend Council and was ongoing for 13 months before Mr Cox was made aware of it.

It was eventually dropped as there was not enough evidence to prove the allegations, but the council is now pushing Cllr Cox to declare the money on the gift register, something he is not willing to do as he says it relates to his wife.

Instead, Cllr Cox has called on council leader Cllr Ian Gilbert to launch a formal investigation into the top bosses responsible for the sanctioning of the investigation into the payment.

He accuses council bosses of “sanctioning of criminal investigations with no legal authority” and condoning the “misuse of financial information”, among other things.

Conservative Cllr Mark Flewitt, deputy mayor of Southend, said the events highlight “mass distrust” within the council and the investigation into Cllr Cox should never have been launched.

He said: “If I was leader of the opposition or even in my own position as deputy mayor, I would expect to be pulled into a room and asked ‘do you see how this thing could be construed in the way I may have construed it’ and do you understand where I am coming from?”
Cllr Dan Nelson backed Mr Flewitt’s comments calling the fact the investigation happened at all “unreal”.

He said: “If this was me, first thing I would expect to happen is a phone call from the chief executive or the monitoring officer saying there has been a complaint, we have concerns, did you do it?

“At least I can then prove it at that point – we don’t need to waste external resources carrying out an investigation. But also it is what I would expect any organisation to do.

“There should always be an informal discussion before formal action is used. They used a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

“Had they not done that they wouldn’t have spent thousands snooping into his accounts.”

Opposition councillors have not shared this view.
Cllr Martin Terry (Ind) said: “In a minor transgression you would expect to be pulled into a room and questioned. We’ve all made silly mistakes, but in this case, with this amount of money, I can fully understand why the investigation was undertaken.”

He added: “I am stunned by the whole episode.”

Council leader Ian Gilbert declined to comment.

A council spokesperson 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. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”

‘I have never and would never take a bribe’, says Tory leader

Tory leader Cllr Tony Cox has released the followong statement: “It is with sadness that I am forced to give this statement due to a data protection breach within Southend Council resulting in a news story being published about me.

“I am both disappointed that after castigating members of my group for not using internal means of complaint when I brought this matter to the attention of the leader of council it appears to have found its way into the public domain.

“How can any councillors, residents, business or member of staff trust this council when dealing with complaints if this is treatment they receive. I would reiterate that I take my position as leader of a political group very seriously.

“With confidence I have never and would never take a bribe from any group or individual. I am only guilty of having an opinion that does not match those of officers and for acting in what I believe to be best interests of residents to keep them safe from harm with regards to Uber in 2016.

“Following being exonerated of any crime, I have had to raise concerns about the legality of the investigation. I do believe the conduct by certain individuals has fallen way short of what should be expected.

“Whilst there is an ongoing investigation, and civil action on these matters it will be inappropriate to comment any further until due process has taken its course.”

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter