It is an investigation that has taken nearly two years and cost more than £70,000.
And while it isn’t finished, the allegations against Cllr Keith Aspden, Liberal Democrat Group leader on City of York Council, have finally been revealed.
Before now all we knew was that the allegations against Cllr Keith Aspden, and fellow Lib Dem Nigel Ayre, were so “serious”, in the words of then council leader David Carr, that both had to be sacked from the executive with immediate effect.
That was in August 2017. Both were reinstated to the executive when David Carr himself was ousted as Conservative and council leader in March, replaced by Ian Gillies in March.
We still have no word on the allegations against Cllr Ayre. But a council hearing has been set to hear those levelled against Cllr Aspden on January 3 – and the papers were published today (December 21).
Unable to speak until now, Cllr Aspden has said he had never before had to deal with such a “stressful, prolonged and difficult process” which cost him thousands and left him abruptly struggling to pay his mortgage and other bills.
And the Lib Dems have attacked the “shocking” amount of money spent on an investigation which as appeared to be “a desperate and seemingly endless attempt to discredit local councillors”.
Date back four years
Several allegations were made against Cllr Aspden nearly two years ago by someone only identified as Person A in the documents.
As a result Cllr Aspden was abruptly stripped of his roles as deputy leader of City of York Council and executive member for economic development and community engagement.
And the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition that runs the council nearly fell apart as relations between the two parties became severely strained.
The police also looked into the case, although they took no action.
Person A was a council officer. They made the allegations while they were being investigated for gross misconduct – after they leaked a confidential report for the audit & governance committee to the media.
There were a total of five allegations against Cllr Aspden.
Several are connected with the appointment of a council officer in a role that would report directly to Cllr Aspden as deputy leader.
They concern the alleged attempts by him to help someone identified as ‘Person B’ get the job. Person B is a former Lib Dem intern and alleged ‘close associate’ of Cllr Aspden.
This all happened nearly four years ago.
[The name of Person B was accidentally revealed in a report published on the City of York Council website. We have chosen not to identify them as it would be unfair to do so]
They original allegations were:
- that Cllr Aspden bullied or intimidated council officers in connection with the council appointment
- that he obtained an advantage for Person B in relation to that appointment
- that he failed to disclose a personal interest in relation to the appointment when chairing an appointments panel
- that he disclosed confidential information regarding a Congestion Commission and investments in local mental health services
- that he allowed council facilities to be misused by Lib Dem interns.
The council investigation has already cleared Cllr Aspden over the allegations numbered 1, 4 and 5.
On January 3, the joint standards committee will hold a hearing into the remaining allegations. They will decide whether he has breached the council code of conduct.
The remaining allegations
In the summer of 2015 four people met in the Duke Of York pub on Kings Square, including Cllr Aspden and Person A to discuss the council appointment.
Person A alleges that at that meeting the councillor disclosed confidential information by passing round printed copies of the application forms and CVs of the applicants.
Cllr Aspden denies the documents were shared among the group. Of the two others at that meeting, one supports his version of events, the other supports Person A.
The council’s investigation found that:
- on the available evidence “the applications were taken to the public house, shared and openly discussed”;
- that “Councillor Aspden’s involvement and conduct in relation to [the job appointment] process was improper”;
- and that he “did bring the office of the Councillor and the Council into disrepute”.
Cllr Aspden refutes these findings, and it will be up to the joint standards committee to make a final ruling.
The Liberal Democrat Group are furious that so much time and money has been spent on an investigation they have always described as “unjust, unwarranted and unprecedented”.
The council appointed at least three different external advisors to look into the allegations, including two firms of solicitors.
By summer of this year more than £70,000 of taxpayers’ money had been spent on the investigation, as well as hours of council officers’ time.
Deputy leader of the Lib Dems Ann Reid said it is right that allegations into councillor misconduct are investigated. She added:
However, this has been a disgracefully wasteful and unnecessarily long process, which in our view has not been in any sense proportionate or fair.
We equally believe that the prejudicial and unjust action in removing the councillors from their executive positions back in August 2017 was unwarranted and unprecedented.
There are questions to answer to ensure that in future, no other elected councillor or individual is subjected to such a public and politicised process, commissioned by the council and paid for by council taxpayers, without the ability to respond until now…
The processes have appeared at times to be a desperate and seemingly endless attempt to discredit local councillors.
According to one of Cllr Aspden’s lawyers, because the relevant events took place more than six months before a complaint was made, they should not have been investigated under council rules.
What Cllr Aspden said
And he said:
“I have never had to deal with such a stressful, prolonged and difficult process in my professional, council or personal life, with no control over the timescale involved.
“This process led to the immediate, and without notice, removal from my job as deputy leader of the council, which in turn impacted on my family and has been allowed to play out very much in the public domain, without being able to respond until now.
“I am lucky to have a family that were able to support me financially. Having given up a professional job in 2015 in order to carry out the wide range of responsibilities as deputy leader, I found myself needing to ensure that I could continue to pay my bills and mortgage as the public whirlwind occurred.”