Senior council staff knew of expense abuse’

PUBLISHED: 13:48 08 October 2009 | UPDATED: 17:15 25 August 2010

SHAMED: Clement as the proud leader of Bexley council.

SHAMED: Clement as the proud leader of Bexley council.

SENIOR staff knew about a disgraced council leader s credit card abuse, the Times can reveal.

SENIOR staff knew about a disgraced council leader's credit card abuse, the Times can reveal.

Bexley council blamed the failure to flag up Ian Clement's council purchasing card abuses on 'junior staff' claiming they "did not feel it was their role to question the authority and judgement of the leader in its use."

However an email, obtained by a resident under the Freedom of Information Act, proves that an operations procurement manager at Bexley council advised a junior worker who had flagged up the personal expense on their accounts.

Bexley pensioner Elwyn Bryant, who filed the FOI request, has called for an independent inquiry into why Mr Clement was allowed to use the council credit card for personal expenses months before the City Hall scandal.

He added: "If Bexley council had picked up the abuse he would have thought twice about using his GLA card in the way he did, I'm convinced of that. It would have saved a lot of public money.

"The council's internal audit is self-damning but nobody has been disciplined. An independent inquiry would expose this and individuals would be held accountable."

A report from Bexley council's Audit Committee, on August 10, said the authorisation process for purchasing card checking "was not robust enough".

It continued: "Relatively junior staff were tasked with checking the transactions and undertaking a monitoring role which was not clearly explained to them.

"There was a lack of clarity over the intended use of the card, and staff did not feel it was their role to question the authority and judgement of the leader in its use."

But information received by the Times showed that, on January 4, 2008, a junior worker was advised by a manager on how to proceed after Mr Clement "inadvertently" used the card to pay for a £364 stay at the Ernst Excelsion Hotel on December 28, 2007.

It describes how to marry up a cheque from Mr Clement to pay for the oversight and then the manager states: "Let me know the receipt number and cheque number so I can update Ian's profile in case Audit pick this up."

Bexley council released all correspondence between Bexley council workers who dealt with Mr Clement's payment card accounts but blacked out the names to protect their privacy.

Mr Bryant, of Salisbury Road, Bexley, added: "Why have the names been blacked out? Surely, as a public body, they are accountable to the public. They get paid thousands of pounds to look after our money and this is how they go about justifying themselves. I want to know who authorised the change of use of Mr Clement's card.

"Severe disciplinary action should be taken against the staff responsible for the failure to protect the financial interest of the residents of this borough."

The oversight by Mr Clement was the first of 10 abuses on the Bexley card for personal use totalling £1,220 over a four-month period up to May 2008.

This included £102 at Old Bexley Greek Taverna and £513 at the Park Plaza County Hall Hotel.

Rules issued to card holders clearly state it is strictly for work use only.

The email trail goes back to September 4, 2007, when one worker asks a payroll officer how to process an expense of £53 on the card by Mr Clement on July 4 at the Opus Restaurant during a Local Government Association conference.

The council's internal audit investigation sought to reclaim the expense along with more than £2,000 it deemed to be improperly claimed under members' allowances.

They include two BT Vital Vision events in Boston and San Francisco totalling £1,263.

In a joint response to the audit committee on August 10, chief executive Will Tuckley and director of finance Mike Ellsmore stated: "We note that there is no evidence of fraudulent activity in Mr Clement's use of the Purchasing card."

The audit report took 72 hours to compile at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds but nobody at the council has faced disciplinary action over the credit card abuse. At a meeting last Tuesday, Bexley council voted not to report the matter to the Standard's Board for England and Wales, responsible for overseeing the conduct of members' conduct. On Tuesday, Mr Clement pleaded guilty to fraud charges at Westminster Magistrates Court over his abuse of a Greater London Authority payment card in his role as deputy mayor of London. He was ordered to carry out unpaid work and received a suspended jail sentence.

A spokesman for Bexley council said: "After discussing the matter with both the deputy director (legal services) and the head of internal audit, the director of finance sent the Internal Audit report to the borough commander at Bexleyheath Police Station. He sent it on to Scotland Yard. The Internal Audit investigation was a complex one and it was important that it was a thorough one. Some 72 days of Internal Audit time was spent on the investigation.

"This is within the budgeted annual provision of 165 days allowed for special investigative work.

"The issue is about the use made by Mr Clement of his purchasing card and not about the individuals involved, who were simply doing their job. We have therefore concentrated on improving the council's systems of control.

"The report stated that the monitoring of the card was undertaken at an inappropriate level within the council. Following the Audit Committee, Mr Clement was invoiced for £2,087 and the council is seeking to recover the debt.

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