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Fools Mate?

Fools Mate?Continuing our chess analogy on this matter, those who read our 'Porn Pawn?' article back in July 2009, will recognise how prophetic it turned out to be if they now look at the agenda of Fylde Council's 'Consideration and Hearing Sub Committee' meeting scheduled for 20th October.

The central issue is (or at least was supposed to be) Cllr Simon Renwick's Council-supplied laptop, which had some pornographic images on it; and, it was thought, might also have contained some images that were unlawful.

But no unlawful images were found.

The quick and dirty result of the inquiry is that Cllr Renwick is found to have breached the Council's Code of Conduct, but mostly on relatively minor technicalities and, (and as we predicted), a member of staff in Fylde's IT department has been censured for what the Police investigator described as "numerous image dates [that] have been interfered with"

So what's it all about?

Well, FBC lends each Councillor a laptop computer to encourage Councillors to become computer literate, and to improve efficiency, to reduce paper consumption and so on.

Because the laptops live at the Councillor's home, some eventually begin to use them as a personal possession rather than a work tool. The Council recognises this to some extent, and accepts there is some personal - and even political use - of the laptops.

But there is a 'Members Computer Use Policy' which sets parameters for use, and a section of this prohibits both the use, or allowing the use, of the Council's laptop and Council internet connection to receive or store pornographic images.

Readers need to note here that not all pornographic images - however distasteful they may be to some - are unlawful. Only certain classes of them are, and thankfully, none of the 'unlawful' classes (as defined in the 'Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008') were found on the laptop at all.

But the Council-owned laptop computer allocated to Cllr Renwick was found to have images that had been viewed on the internet which included:

'Naked males in different positions;
Close up images of males wearing underwear;
Close up images of erect penises;
Close up images of naked male torsos;
Naked male torsos and their erect penises;
Two males with naked torsos kissing;
Two images of one male performing oral sex on another male;
One close up image of an erect penis penetrating what appears to be the anal region of another person'


These images were found not as individual images saved to the computer's hard disk, but in the temporary image (or cache) files that Internet Explorer creates without the user's knowledge whenever they visit a website (The counterbalance logo and the image for this article are now probably in temporary internet files on the computer you are using to view this page). (Readers can follow this link for more details about temporary internet files )

So pretty much conclusively, the existence of those images on the laptop allocated to Cllr Renwick shows that the 'Members Computer Policy' has been contravened in respect of that laptop.

Much of the investigation that has been undertaken centred on trying to work out by whom and when the images were first seen, and when and how often they had been looked at since.

Cllr Renwick had explained that in his opinion, they went onto the laptop without his knowledge, perhaps when it was stored at his former home whilst he was moving home.

It had also later been stored (mostly unused) at his parent's home because he had a better computer. He says several other members of his family knew the access details for the Council's laptop and (at least by implication if not by actual statement) he suggests that other(s) were responsible for the images being on the laptop.

His response to the investigator shows a degree of what some might believe to be paranoia, suggesting at various times that "a person or persons unknown to him accessed the laptop [at his former home] in some form of revenge attack", and elsewhere that the member of Fylde's IT staff who reported finding the images had a politically motivated dislike of Cllr Renwick. In this respect he asked at one point "Is it too much to imagine that an upload was made with a timescale and narrative designed to see me 'done in.'" Readers will recognise that a question phrased in this way is not the same as a statement that might be actionable.

There were 12,020 images in the profile 'cllrsrenwick', of which "at least 1,000 were gay male pornographic type images or gay males posing provocatively." The Police investigator who examined the laptop believed some of the images had arisen in connection with search terms entered into Google. These took place for a relatively short period in June/July 2007. There was no history of this sort of use before June/July 2007, and almost nothing after July 2007 except for access in January 2009 when the laptop was brought into the Council's IT department.

The investigator could not establish any evidence linking Cllr Renwick with the material found (other than the logged on username was 'cllrsrenwick' - but that could have been used by anyone knowing the username and password for that account)

This leads the report to conclude "there is no evidence to establish that Councillor Renwick was responsible for the pornographic material being on the Council's laptop".

However, the lack of proof that Cllr Renwick personally viewed or downloaded the images doesn't get him off the hook of course, because he wasn't supposed to let anyone else have the account password anyway, and the 'offence' - in terms of FBC's policy - is the use, or allowing the use, of the Council's laptop and or the Council internet connection to receive or store pornographic images. Clearly the laptop had been used to both receive and store pornographic images.

As we said at the start, he's been found guilty by the investigation, but on the few technicalities that can be proven rather than the substance of the allegation that was made.

You can read the full investigation report by downloading it from the Council's website for as long as they leave it there. We have a copy if anyone wants one after it vanishes from the Council's website.

As a slight aside at this point, there is a table in the report which claims to list the Google search terms typed in by a user who had logged on as 'cllrsrenwick.'

In this regard, Cllr Renwick says at one point that he could not say whether it was he or some other person that input the search terms to Google, (the report later says he "accepts that he entered the Google searches") but he considered them legitimate searches for someone like him "who was looking for information and role models".

There are a number of mundane search terms that were input, such as 'house shares in Kirkham' and 'Great Eccleston Show' and a few that might have been of more interest to the inquiry addressing 'gay' issues such as 'gay etiquette' and 'gay clubs in Preston' and "spotting gays" - but the first one on the list is.... wait for it ..... your very own 'counterbalance'.

We're not clear whether being first in the list means it was the most searched for site, or whether it was a happy co-incidence that it was first, but there it is.

Back onto the main topic: regular readers will know we're not enamoured with much of what the National Standards Board has done. We're glad to see the back of it in Saint Eric's bonfire of the QUANGOs. But counterbalance has consistently said it had a role to expose Councillors where there was wrongdoing at a level that was just below the threshold of evidence required for a criminal prosecution.

Regulars will also know that, although we claim legitimate locus to comment where it impinges on their duty as a councillor, the personal life of individual councillors is not the sort of thing we get into, and this is no exception. Other than contravening the Council's policy we make no comment on Cllr Renwick's conduct.

But as we said before - in our article 'Porn Pawn?' - our main interest is in this matter is not what Cllr Renwick may or may not have done with his laptop. It is the process by which the investigation took place.

An unnamed officer (who is no longer in the Council's employment) comes in for a lot of stick in the report, and that disturbs us.

This was the officer who discovered the offending images and blew the whistle. When whistleblowers lose their jobs - whether through dismissal or being hounded or persuaded out, it is a sign that something is rotten in the system that allows it to happen.

The most prominent example of this is, in our view, Elizabeth Filkin, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who was ousted for investigating high-profile MPs too closely. (Just before the MP's expenses scandal broke)

We wonder whether the officer concerned in this matter has been treated too harshly by the Council.

Claire Lefort, of Weightmans (a 'Top 60 law firm with offices in Birmingham, Leicester, Liverpool, London and Manchester') was engaged to investigate the allegation against Cllr Renwick. But she did not interview the (now unemployed) IT officer who - unlike other officers in the report - is referred to as 'Officer X' (other officers are named personally).

We support the view that this former officer would have been a vital witness, and we wouldn't be surprised to find they were eager, let alone willing, to have given evidence, (given that they blew the whistle in the first place). This would also have provided an opportunity for them to clear their name of the allegations of evidence tampering made against them in the report. But it was not to be. They were not asked to give evidence. We suspect that, (as we suggested in 'Porn Pawn?'), because the officer made a backup copy of the data and spoke too freely about what he had done, he was in effect discredited by the establishment and either dismissed or persuaded to leave.

It is a hollow echo of our speculation in 'Porn Pawn' where we said "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."

So how did all this come about?

Well, the background is that having checked and updated Cllr Renwick's laptop several times with no problem, in early 2009, the Council's IT department found itself having difficulty getting it in for checking and updates etc. Things culminated in the Chief Executive (no less), appearing on Cllr Renwick's doorstep and asking for the laptop. This is most unusual.

It was apparently a Friday, and the Chief Executive left it in his car boot over the weekend before giving it to the IT people on 26 Jan 2009.

The Chief Executive said that Cllr Renwick had told him he didn't want it back because he had a better personal computer, and Mr Woodward assumed it would be made ready for another Councillor.

There is some disagreement as to exactly what happened next.

Mr Marriott in the IT department, who, by virtue of his asking the question might have been thought to harbour some suspicion, says he asked Mr Woodward whether the laptop should be "wiped or reviewed", and was told to wipe it.

Mr Woodward says he was more circumspect in response to Mr Marriot's question and simply advised that the laptop should be made ready for use by another councillor.

Hmmmm.

Mr Marriott passed the laptop to 'Officer X' - expecting that it would not have any of it's information looked at, but that it would simply be wiped clean, ready for use by another Councillor (at some date in the future one presumes, as at that time all existing Councillors prepared to use computers had been issued with them).

However Mr Marriott overheard a conversation in a corridor in which Officer X said he had found some inappropriate material and had been to see the Chief Executive.

The Chief Executive confirms that 'Officer X' went to see him and told him there were images that were potentially unlawful, and he described the images (which Mr Woodward declined to see), but Mr Woodward did say he would arrange for an independent inspection.

Mr Marriot subsequently told Officer X to seal the laptop and take it to Audit for safekeeping, which he did.

At some point between 26 January and 'approximately' 3 February (when a police officer collected it to take it to Hutton HQ for examination), Officer X is said to have retrieved the laptop from Audit.

Using statements made in what Claire Lefort's report calls "a different investigation", Officer X confirmed that he had retrieved the laptop and downloaded the content to a memory stick which he had taken home and copied to a disk (probably a CD)

We would not be surprised to find this "different investigation" was actually a FBC disciplinary interview with the whistleblower for "a potential breach of confidence" - perhaps for being overheard in a corridor and or copying the data.

Once it became known that a copy of the data had been made, 'Officer X' was told by his line manager to hand over the CD - which he did. (But of course, no one knows how many other copies he might have made).

We wonder - if Officer X had confidence in his line manager and the Chief Executive to properly deal with the matter he had reported - why he felt the need to make a security copy of the data to keep at home. Perhaps the threat of a disciplinary interview coloured his judgement.

Perhaps he had in mind the treatment of the Streetscene officer who was suspended and accused of serious improper conduct (in a process that diverted attention from the Councillors implicated in the Streetscene debacle), and who was then persuaded to accept a 'compromise agreement' to leave the Council's service - subsequent to which no charges of any kind were laid against him.

Having watched that happen to a colleague, we could understand if Officer X felt it necessary to make themselves a security copy - if that's what they did. And we suspect many people would understand that as well.

The Police Expert at Hutton was only asked to look for unlawful images at first, so the scope of his inquiry was quite limited,

In a sample of 61 provided in his first report, he found what he considered to be pornographic, but not illegal, images.

He was later asked by Claire Lefort to carry out a further investigation of the material to try to establish who might have viewed the images, whether the Google searches were responsible for their being there and when and how frequently they had been viewed.

He was able to provide data on some of this, but said "it had been impossible for him to say how many times the Google searches were conducted or the number of times the pages were viewed, or exactly what was responsible for what due to interference by the council's ICT team and the way Windows deals with temporary internet files"

He went on to say that "Windows self-manages temporary internet files and saves then automatically unbeknown to the user and deletes [them] based on usage but in a somewhat random fashion"

He criticised the IT department who he said "...should have switched off the computer at the first indication of anything suspicious. In this case they changed the date on 76,979 files" (possibly simply by copying them onto the Council's computer ready for Mr Woodward to see, or when they were copied to the memory stick).

He also says that even if there had been unlawful images on the laptop, the CPS would "have had to offer no evidence" implying that the changes to file access dates would have caused them to abandon prosecution of a case when that came to light.

We don't dispute what he says, but we're inclined to take this with a bit of a pinch of salt given that the first report by the Police expert says the laptop they examined came from "Blackpool Council" and had been used by "a member of staff" there.

We figure that might also have caused a bit of a collapse of any prosecution of Cllr Renwick who is a Fylde Borough councillor and not even a member of Fylde's (let alone Blackpool's) 'staff'.

Claire Lefort of Weightmans helpfully adds her own 'observations' (as she describes them) at the end of her report, and lays into the IT department for not having more formal policies in place to ensure the head of the IT team was told immediately anything was discovered, that no formal records had been kept of what happened.

BUT

We're left wondering, as we asked before - if Officer X had confidence in his head of IT and the Chief Executive to deal properly with the matter he had reported - we wonder why he felt the need to make a security copy to keep at home.

We also note that he was the only person in the whole of this episode that seems to have been alert to the risk, and was the only one who took the trouble to look into it in the first place. He was the one who blew the whistle. He is also the only one who is now unemployed.

So what happens now?

Well, we could almost have predicted the outcome from the last Council meeting when Cllr Renwick's name was once again put forward as a member of some committees, now that his most recent period of suspension as a councillor has been 'served'

The investigation has found that he failed to comply with the Council's Code of Conduct, and the first decision is whether what he has done is so serious that it needs to be referred to the National Standards Board.

Fylde's "Consideration and Hearing Sub - Committee" (whose meeting agenda for 20th October has recently been published) will make this decision.

Whilst in theory that's a possibility, we're pretty sure it's not going to happen, so the matter will probably be sent to a meeting of Fylde's own Standards Committee which will be a formal hearing to determine whether they agree that the member breached the code of conduct.

If they do, the sub-committee will go on to decide what (if any) sanction to impose on the Cllr Renwick.

We suspect this 'court' will not be too severe on him.

Whether the court of public opinion will be as lenient - only time will tell.

Dated:    15 October 2010


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