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Porn Pawn?

Porn Pawn?We suspect the Gazette's report of a Standards Committee inquiry into the conduct of Wesham's Cllr Simon Renwick - who was until very recently, a Cabinet Portfolio Holder handpicked by the Commissar - could herald his fall from grace.

He left the Politburo Cabinet just before the election and later failed to be nominated to another of Fylde's Committees when the Commissar said his name had been included on the original list by mistake. We also hear other councillors questioning whether he is still claiming allowances for his former post. We get the feeling the knives are out for him.

Partly this is his own 'fault'. He can display an abrasive manner that some find offensive, and we know of several councillors (and a few disgruntled residents) who will be quietly satisfied if he appears destined for what they might see as his comeuppance.

Whist we may not agree with all his views, we do defend his right to them, however abrasive or unpopular they might be.

We have found that politically speaking you do at least know where you are with him, and what to expect.

For the most part we have found him to say what he believes, and we actually prefer that approach to the sort of politician who hides their true intent in doublespeak and silver-tongued language so you don't know what's actually going on until it's too late to do anything about it.

As for the substance of the allegations against him, we remain mostly unmoved. If they have some substance, then he probably has a case to answer to the Council regarding what he has been doing with his laptop and internet connection given that they are 'public property' and thus owned by the Council. If not, then there will be no case to answer.

Frankly, we're much more worried about plans to abandon Fylde's individuality and merge it with Blackpool's, and about financially incompetent management that has left debts for the next generation to pay off.

So we don't really put that much store by what he may, or may not, have been seeing on a computer in the privacy of his own home. What consenting adults do in their private lives behind closed doors is a matter for them. So long as they are discreet, we see no role for the state or anyone else to become involved.

The episode might highlight things about his judgement and his character that will influence people's opinion of him, and whether they want to support him in public office. But that's a matter for individuals to decide once the facts are known.

However, we do think there is a more serious aspect to the allegations. It is whether there was an attempted cover up, and whether the Council's processes were manipulated improperly.

Since as far back as last year, we were picking up gossip (from several sources) about allegations of inappropriate images on his laptop. We don't normally respond to unconfirmed gossip, and regular readers will know that whilst we will speak forthrightly on the public activities and judgement of those in political life, you won't normally find us addressing anyone's private life.

In this instance there are probably only three or so people who know the real story about the laptop, and they're not saying - at least not at present - so because we know nothing, we can only speculate as to what might have happened.

We might speculate that a regular checking and maintenance session exists for the laptop computers issued to councillors. It may be that on occasions it becomes time - or it becomes overdue - for a particular laptop to have its maintenance check.

Perhaps sometimes, the I.T. staff might have difficulty getting laptops brought in for checking.

Perhaps in extreme cases it may be necessary for someone like the Chief Executive to appear on a Councillor's doorstep to take the laptop back to the Town Hall.

We think if this were to happen, it would be quite exceptional, and one might have grounds to believe there was something more than a Councillor with a poor memory at the root of such an eventuality.

If such a situation had existed, we wonder what might happen when the laptop arrived back at the Town Hall.

Perhaps the Chief Executive might bring it in and say "There we are, ready for checking and maintenance."

Alternatively he might say "Just wipe that clean and give it a re-start".

Or, if his suspicions had been aroused, perhaps he might say something like "Don't touch that, leave it alone because I have some suspicions about it and I want to send it to an independent IT expert in Manchester for forensic examination"

Consider the options here. If you were a Fylde employee receiving such laptop, what would you do in each of these circumstances?

Suppose in the first example, you started the checking and found something you thought was inappropriate. What would you do next?

Or suppose you had previously reported a concern about what might be on that particular laptop - and you were suspicious of reluctance to bring it in. Given an instruction not to look at it, or an instruction to wipe it clean, you might become concerned about what was going on.

You might have a look anyway, and quite possibly, if you found something untoward, you might end up at the same point as before. So what then?

What might you do if you were to find something inappropriate?

Well, if you have confidence that it would be properly dealt with, you might just report it to your line manager and let 'the process' take over.

But if you had been told not to do anything with it, or if you had been told to wipe it clean, or perhaps if you were just naturally suspicious, you might not have that confidence. You might worry that the instruction you had been given was wrong, and by following it you were becoming complicit in some sort of inappropriate - and perhaps even unlawful - cover-up, and you might feel the need to protect your back in case something went wrong.

So, in those circumstances, you might make a copy of the offending data on a CD and maybe put it in a sealed envelope, say with your signature across the envelope seal for security, and present that to another senior officer in the council (who you consider to be above reproach) as an envelope for safekeeping.

If you are a bit on the paranoid side, you might even make another security copy of the data for yourself, just in case the one in the envelope became lost.

Then you might either do the checking, or the wiping, or hand it on the next day to go to Manchester or wherever, and - at least at that stage - no one would be any the wiser.

But if that's what you had done, things would just have become very murky, because whilst you might think you are acting or preparing to act as a 'whistleblower' you might have compromised a separate investigation - just by using the laptop.

You might also be at risk of disciplinary action yourself for disobeying an instruction.

Potentially, (if those in charge wanted to approach it in this way), that situation could also provide a reason to delay, or at least slow down, the whole investigation process.

Imagine for a minute that the laptop was sent off for independent inspection, and when it came back, the accompanying message said there was inappropriate stuff on it but it was not in the realms of criminality.

At this point, if you were the Chief Executive, you would have to consider what to do. You might decide to speak with the laptop user and ask about the images. You might even discuss it with the Leader of the Council and get his view.

Furthermore, we don't recall hearing any assurances that the money was immediately available. How would Cllr Henshaw know anyway?. The way the Commissar keeps other Councillors in the dark, its amazing they get to hear anything. Several tell us they hear what's going on in Fylde more through these pages on counterbalance than from their agendas.

The laptop user might offer all sorts of reasons of course. For example, they might argue someone else was responsible - perhaps suggesting someone else had been operating the computer or their internet connection for a time without their knowledge.

Perhaps the user might blame the people who had looked at their laptop and say that they must have put the images on.

All sorts of possibilities could arise. And many would be very difficult to prove conclusively.

So after weighing things up, if you were the Chief Executive, you might come to the view that if there was nothing criminal, there would be little to be gained from the adverse publicity and the reputational risk to the Council of dragging it into the public domain, so you might look for a way to bury the story.

This wouldn't improve the murkiness of the matter.

An approach like that might be thought to straddle a very fine line between what is right and what is not. It might be seen by some as sound judgement, and by others as an attempted cover up.

Either way, if you did want to bury the story, the classic approach might be to focus on the investigation of the employee's potential misconduct first. (Because with a bit of luck, the result of that process might discredit the employee sufficiently to make their evidence much less credible in a future investigation into the conduct of the laptop user. It might even be so discredited as to make investigation of the substance unwarranted).

The first investigation process might even delay things for so long that everyone lost interest in the original allegation anyway.

You might hope it would all simply go away.

If you wanted to follow this path, you might first send the employee a letter telling them that you plan to interview them in accordance with the disciplinary procedure. That might put the employee under stress, leading quickly to a period of sickness absence.

If that happened it could slow the whole thing down, because it might be inappropriate to undertake a disciplinary interview or conduct a disciplinary investigation whilst an employee is unwell through stress.

If things were to go that far, it's unlikely an employee would ever go back to work. Even if they survive the disciplinary process, the trust between them and their colleagues is probably broken beyond repair. When this dawns on the employee, it can make then fearful and irrational, maybe even to the extent of seeking support from the media (remember that speculative spare CD of the inappropriate data) that you would like to avoid. If you are in charge, one way to deal with this might be to use the promise of a severance process with financial strings attached to persuade the employee to silence.

But with the passage of time, the risk increases that stories about the laptop, or indeed the disciplinary process, become more widely known. The bush telegraph has a habit of reaching quite far flung parts of the Commissar's empire. For example, even back in May we were picking up stories about such allegations from some of our own readers.

As more people become aware, it's likely that questions would be asked by other councillors, and pressure would build. If this genie were to get out of the bottle, there's not much chance of getting it back in.

Eventually it could reach the point where so much of a story became common gossip (and perhaps eventually a formal complaint from other Councillors), those in charge become unable to contain the genie. The searing beam of knowledge forces them to take the formal action they may have been unwilling to take so far. It might also engender a desire to start to protect their own back.

That's probably when it would start to look like, or become seen as, a cover up.

In such cases, the next step might be having the 'laptop' allegation referred to the Police. You might think that if an expert examination had said it wasn't really serious, the Police aren't likely to take a different view. And if that was their view, they would probably say nothing illegal had taken place.

So, if that was your aim, having limited the damage as far as possible, you might have to accept that there is now going to be some 'collateral damage' and start the process to formally deal with the original allegation.

The formal processes set out in the Councils procedures would start to grind, and you might find a report in the Gazette that says something like the one on 2 June this year which said......

"An investigation has been launched after an allegation a councillor's laptop contained pornographic images. Coun Simon Renwick, who represents Wesham, was reported to Fylde Council's standards board by chief executive Phil Woodward. The Gazette has seen a copy of a leaked standards board letter in which it is alleged that Coun Renwick ""used, or allowed the use of, his council laptop computer and council internet connection to receive or store obscene or pornographic materials"".

"Mr Woodward, who submitted the complaint after evidence was supplied to him by officers, said he was bound by local authority rules to stay silent. A council spokesman did confirm, however, there was no question of illegal activity".

And you might also find a robust denial from the person concerned. Cllr Renwick was reported as having issued a furious denial of any wrongdoing to the Gazette, saying: "I'm absolutely and categorically denying I have done anything wrong."

"I haven't been charged with anything, this allegation shouldn't have been made public. This is all a politically motivated smear campaign which is being orchestrated because the election is coming up".

"I have not been found guilty of anything and I think someone has made a crude attempt to frame me".

"I have my own broadband connected computer, so if I was going to do that type of thing, why would I use a council laptop? It doesn't make any sense."

So what does this amount to?

Well, not a lot really. It's too soon to tell.

The substance of the allegation will only be determined by a forensic examination of the evidence, and we imagine that process is now in train or will take place.

With regard to other matters, there could be a messy issue involving a member of staff and the laptop, perhaps to decide whether actions were disobedient or whistleblowing. We imagine that investigation would take place too.

Knowing how Fylde has approached messy and uncertain issues like this before, we expect this could be settled with a compromise agreement - involving a mutually agreed severance package - and the employee not returning to work.

This is what happened with the Streetscene manager when he was investigated over the 609,000 loss from that department.

The result of that investigation turned out to be just as we predicted. There was insufficient evidence of wrongdoing (and thus no case to answer) for the suspended Streetscene manager who eventually "agreed to leave the Council's employment via a compromise agreement" (and with the benefit of an undisclosed severance package that had been agreed with the Leader of the Council).

We wouldn't be surprised to see the same thing happen here eventually.

But back to the allegation against Cllr Renwick..... we would actually like to see a third investigation before anyone leaves. We don't really like the thought that relatively junior employees could have been used as pawns in a chess game and sacrificed where necessary. So we'd like to see a forensic investigation about which officers knew and did what, and when.

But we're not holding our breath.

Dated:  15 July 2009


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