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Council to complain to police over poor investigation into alleged fraud

Outside Pembrokeshire County Council's County Hall, Haverfordwest

PEMBROKESHIRE County Council is to complain over Dyfed-Powys Police’s handling of an “extremely unsophisticated and simplistic” alleged commercial Property Grant Scheme fraud in Pembroke Dock which ultimately ended in no convictions.

More than a decade ago Hakin county councillor Cllr Mike Stoddart uncovered irregularities in a council-administered Commercial Property Grant Scheme (CPGS) in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock, funded by the Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO).

Irregular payments of around £60,000 were found to have been made to a developer – in respect of properties on Dimond Street and Meyrick Street – who offered to pay back a total of £180,000 having received payments for other projects.

The council had to repay £309,000 to WEFO and take steps to rewrite the CPGS procedure manual to close loopholes in order to minimise the opportunities for fraud stated Cllr Stoddart.

After much fighting – and facing false accusations from fellow councillors of lying – Cllr Stoddart’s evidence was reported to police following a formal review in 2014.

In 2019 the Crown Prosecution Service said there would be no charges following the five-year investigation.

Citing county council witness statements with ‘conflicting evidence’ and a missing hard drive that could contain vital evidence, the CPS dismissed an appeal to reconsider bringing charges.

At the March meeting of Pembrokeshire County Council, a long-awaited report for members was included, with the matter recommended to be discussed out of public session, as ‘private and confidential’.

Councillors had access to the associated documents but the public did not until a successful call for all but a few redacted details to be discussed in public was made by Cllr Stoddart.

Cllr Michael Williams, who was one of the first, along with Cllr Stoddart, to raise concerns back in 2013, said: “We were let down by police, no doubt about that, the investigation was incompetent and the outcome was extremely disappointing; we’ve worked really hard and a lot of it was down to Mike Stoddart, who has worked extremely hard, and he was called a liar over this.”

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Deputy Leader Cllr Paul Miller said: “I’m just keen that we learn the lessons, it was never our job to protect the council or its position; we need to be a bit more willing to ask the difficult questions.

“Dyfed-Powys Police and the CPS need to reflect how effectively they are investigating these particular types of crimes.”

Cllr Jacob Williams praised the role of Cllr Stoddart: “The most credit goes to Mike Stoddart; he was treated terribly, with accusations he was causing trouble; there’s a lot to be said for being a trouble-maker, the council report here vindicates everything he said.

“I think he’s been most noble in all this, and he’s been treated terribly.

“The police did a poor investigation into this but they treated Cllr Stoddart poorly as well.”

Cllr Williams said Cllr Stoddart had asked for an update from police in 2016 after it had been revealed that no arrests had been made, only to be told they only had an obligation to provide an update to the ‘victim,’ the council, not the public.

“I want this to be a vote of thanks for Cllr Stoddart for going about this the right way,” Cllr Williams said, adding: “It’s such a basic fraud it’s hard to believe the police took so long to come up with nothing.

“I’m very thankful to Cllr Stoddart and I think the council should be, he’s done a great public service and I think we should be grateful.”

The final word went to Cllr Stoddart, who said: “What this is about is getting to the truth.

“Cover-ups never work; there’s always someone who lifts the covers and gets to it, in this case I’m proud to say it’s me.”

Members – with one abstention – backed the contents of the report, and agreed to write to all relevant policing authorities and watchdogs expressing their concerns over the police handling of the incident.

It was recommended a private prosecution is not pursued by the council, and that all relevant documentation be made available to the Governance and Audit Committee to assist it in its investigation into this issue which has currently been paused.