For two years I have been trying to find out whether or not Labour Councillor Steve Albon is subject to a gagging order (non-disclosure agreement - NDA) with Thanet District Council.
Both he and TDC have steadfastly refused to answer my questions about this important matter. Albon failed on four separate occasions to answer the questions I put to him about this.
The council refused to answer a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I submitted about the gagging order on the grounds that it was vexatious and “likely to cause a disproportionate or unjustified level of disruption, irritation or distress to the Council”
However, in documents which TDC was recently forced to reveal to me, evidence has emerged which appears to show that by rejecting my FOI request the council was able to cover up the truth, which appears to be that Cllr Albon is indeed subject to a TDC gagging order.
In an email exchange with colleagues about my gagging order FOI request TDCs Monitoring Officer and legal boss, Estelle Culligan, says:-
I(an)D(river)s intended aim is clearly to cause distress to councillor Albon and/ or senior officers of the council by making unfounded allegations on his blog if he gets this information"
If councillor Albon was not subject to a TDC gagging order then the council would of course not hold any information on the matter. But as Culligan says if he gets this information he would cause distress to councillor Albon and/or senior officers of the council by making unfounded allegations on his blog.
A reasonable person reading this passage can only take it to mean one thing; that the council does hold some information about Albon and an NDA/ gagging order, and that disclosing this information to me would cause problems for Albon and senior officers of council.
If this interpretation is true this means that the Council’s Monitoring Officer and legal boss, Estelle Culligan appears to have manipulated the FOI process in order to supress the truth. This is a very serious allegation which I will be reporting to the Information Commissioner.
The manipulation of a legal process, such as Freedom of Information requests, by a senior council officer and a registered solicitor is, if proven to have happened, a breach of TDCs officer code of conduct and the Solicitors Regulatory Authority code of conduct. It is also in breach of the Seven Principles of Public Life which all council officers and councillors are required to uphold.
I am sure that Estelle Culligan’s new employers might not look too sympathetically upon her if it is found to be the case that she did indeed deliberately and knowingly subvert a legal process.
But the question must be asked why the council and Albon appear to have colluded together to keep shtum about what now appears to be an NDA/ gagging order placed upon Steve Albon 4-5 years ago
Gagging orders in local authorities are only ever used to cover up some sort of serious problem or wrong doing. So what were the reasons for agreeing this order? What was it that the council or Albon did to merit the taking of such an unusual step? How much was he paid? Who approved the order?
There are many other important issues arising from what appears to be a high level cover up and abuse of legal process by TDC, which I will return to soon.
In the meantime TDC should issue a public statement about this matter at the earliest opportunity