Businessman calls for review of sanctioning process after no action taken by councillors
THE Wexford businessman who brought a case against the chief executive of Wexford County Council has called for the power to sanction officials to be removed from councillors, stating that there was no accountability for the official’s actions.
At a special council meeting on Friday, Tom Enright apologised for any embarrassment he may have caused the local authority – in the wake of damning Standards in Public Office (SIPO) findings against him.
Seated at a large table flanked by council officials, Mr Enright said he wished to draw a line under the matter after what had been a very difficult period in his life.
SIPO found Mr Enright put unwarranted pressure on the owner of South East Radio and acted recklessly in doing so.
The SIPO investigation considered allegations that Mr Enright breached the Local Government Act 2001 and the Code of Conduct for Employees.
The Commission had heard allegations against Mr Enright that he used his position to threaten to pull sponsorship and advertising funding from South East Radio over what he deemed to be biased coverage on a current affairs programme in 2019.
A hearing in November heard of a chain of emails in which Mr Enright threatened to pull sponsorship and advertising from South East Radio as a legal case through SIPO by a contributor to the station was outstanding against him.
A complaint was received by SIPO on October 9, 2019, from Karl Fitzpatrick, host of the Business Matters show on the station, alleging a threat by Mr Enright to withdraw advertising in retaliation for negative coverage of the council on his show.
‘Lack of accountability’
Mr Fitzpatrick said: “Given the resistance that I met in seeking to advance my complaint through the council, I am not surprised by the outcome of Wexford County Council’s meeting last Friday which considered the SIPO investigation report into its Chief Executive Mr Tom Enright. The council’s decision demonstrates a complete lack of accountability for the actions of senior public officials and a disrespect for the role and findings of the Standards in Public Office Commission. The system is clearly one which is not functioning properly and needs to be reformed as a matter of urgency. This can only be achieved by transferring the sanctioning powers to SIPO.”
At ‘The Street’ public area in County Hall on Friday afternoon, Mr Enright said that all he ever looked for was fairness from the radio station, saying he simply “stood firmly” against what he “and others believe” was deliberate bias by South East Radio against the council.
“I would not be doing my job if I did not,” he said.
“I can categorically state that I believe that I acted in good faith and in the interest of Wexford County Council. I re-state that I regret the tone of my emails.”
In a detailed, 376-page report, SIPO had the following to say in its findings:
“In his role as Chief Executive, Mr Enright has a right, and indeed an obligation, to defend the reputation of the Council, and has a personal right to defend his own reputation. However, a person in his position must react in a proportionate and level-headed manner if he is to protect the integrity of his position and maintain public trust in the Council.
“If Mr Enright considered that the coverage of the Council was unfair or imbalanced, there were formal routes through which he could pursue that issue. The emails of 29 and 30 August 2019 were not the appropriate recourse and amounted to an over-reaction and inappropriate conflation of issues on Mr Enright’s part.
“They fell below what is expected of someone in his position, in terms of content, tone, style and language.5.8 The Commission found the second email – in which Mr Enright accused the station of “censorship”, described Mr Fitzpatrick as having a “personal vendetta” against him and described the threatened complaint under the Ethics Acts as “sickening” – to be particularly emotive and unbecoming of a person in such a senior role.
“There is no doubting Mr Enright’s passion and drive for Wexford. He has clearly worked hard to get to his senior position and expended considerable time and effort, with evident success, for the betterment of the county. However, it is incumbent on someone in his position to maintain appropriate standards when his work record is challenged. On this occasion, the Commission considers that Mr Enright’s conduct fell below the required standard, bringing the position of Chief Executive and Wexford County Council into disrepute.”
‘Blacken my name’
Mr Enright said he has been advised that there are strong grounds to legally challenge SIPO’s findings, before adding: “I can confirm to the council that I have no intention of doing so. While I do not agree with much of SIPO’s findings, I do accept them and the role of SIPO.
“I apologise for any embarrassment that I may have caused to the council. I can assure the elected members that the SIPO findings will not deflect me from the important work of this council that needs to be done.”
At the outset of the meeting councillors were told not to use their phones to communicate anything about the meeting, by county secretary Dave Minogue.
With social distancing measures in place, around 50 people – including TDs Verona Murphy and Paul Kehoe – attended what was the most tense and dramatic event to take place at ‘The Street’ since it was opened.
Following a vote of sympathy for murdered teacher Ashling Murphy by chairperson Barbara-Anne Murphy, she went on to quote from page 22 of the SIPO report, referencing a section which praised the CEO for his hard working ethic and efforts to improve Co Wexford.
“I speak for everyone here in this council, I think, that we agree as a whole with that statement,” to a ‘here here’ from Cllr Ger Carthy.
“All of us have had the opportunity to consider the entire report we’re here to discuss and to decide whether or not to impose sanctions.”
The sanctions could include suspending or dismissing the CEO outright.
Mr Enright then made a statement, saying it was his duty as CEO to robustly defend the council if there was unfair reporting of its activities.
“The facts are clear. South East Radio breached the Broadcasting Act and its broadcasting contract with the BAI. This has already resulted in the BAI issuing South East Radio with a compliance notice and the council is continuing to engage with the BAI in relation to other matters raised with them.”
Mr Enright highlighted how Mr Fitzpatrick was critical of the council’s economic strategy, expounding on how potentially damaging this was when the council was trying to attract investors. He said positive comments about the council were edited out of a Business Matters show in August 2019 and again a week later, claiming biased coverage, which the station denies.
Mr Enright said he was subjected to threats and intimidation, adding that Mr Fitzpatrick attempted to blacken his good name by circulating to his colleagues that he was the subject of a SIPO complaint. He said Mr Fitzpatrick had told people he was lodging the SIPO complaint, adding that he found out about it from a member of the Wexford Rotary Club.
Cllr Oliver Walsh said: “The feeling of the Fine Gael group is that Tom acted in good faith at all times. Since Tom Enright started in his position as CEO he has certainly put on the purple and gold jersey and acted for the good of the county council at all times.”
Speaking for the Fianna Fáil councillors, Pip Breen said they believed he always acted with the best interests of the council in mind.
Cllr Ger Carthy said Mr Enright had put on the Wexford jersey when he arrived to lead the local authority eight years ago, and had driven the county forward.
Cllr David Hynes said: “I have seen quite a lot of county managers in my time and by far and away Tom comes out on top. I am sure Tom will learn from this.”
Cllr Leonard Kelly described Mr Enright as a man of absolute integrity. “I am very, very happy to vouch for Tom’s integrity and I look forward to working with him well into the future.”
Cllr John Hegarty said SIPO forensically examined the emails, saying Mr Enright is the best person to lead the county forward.
“There is no suggestion of corruption or deception. He is motivated by a fervent desire to defend himself and the county.”
Praising Mr Enright’s passion for Wexford, he said his coherent capital plan is already bearing fruit in the Hatch Lab, Min Ryan Park and other initiatives.
Cllr Tom Forde said SIPO is a very important process to hold officials to standards. He said: “We have to do our business without (exerting) undue influence. The CEO has probably some lessons to learn.”
Cllr Forde said Mr Enright has always acted very professionally with him, adding that there was a ‘small slip in standards’, as he was driven to protect the reputation of Wexford County Council.
Cllr Jim Codd said he was conscious that the media must never be directed and must remain free to serve the people at all times ‘even when’ council officials get upset or annoyed.
“I think we must accept SIPO’s findings, but to err is human and I believe the work that Tom has done and continues to do for Wexford far outweighs anything here.”
Cllr Pat Barden sought to have the meeting postponed, saying more time was needed to read the the report – which runs to almost 400 pages.
“I don’t believe seven days is enough time to consider and digest a report of this magnitude,” calling for the matter to be postponed for up to three months.
The meeting was adjourned for 20 minutes while legal counsel directed councillors as to their options – and upon resuming, Fine Gael Cllr Oliver Walsh proposed that councillors note the findings of the report and impose no further sanction.
“I think it has been a very tough time on Tom and his family. We should be aware that Tom is human and has a family.”
Fianna Fáil Cllr Pip Breen seconded the proposal.
Following the roll call, Director of Services for Roads Eamonn Hore said all directors of Wexford County Council were united in their support of Mr Enright, expressing his disappointment that serious allegations of corruption and deception were included in the charges against Mr Enright – allegations, Mr Hore said, were completely unfounded and not proven in the SIPO investigation.
The CEO spoke of his profound appreciation of the support he has received, not only in Co Wexford, but also in the counties where he previously worked.
“The past two and a half years have been a difficult time for me and my family. I am pleased I can now draw a line under this matters and concentrate fully on the work of the council with the fantastic team we have here.”
Thirty councillors voted to note the SIPO report’s findings, but not to impose any sanction. Cllr Pat Barden was the sole candidate to abstain from voting, while councillors Fionntáin Ó Suilleabháin, Jackser Owens and Anthony Connick were not present to cast a vote.
Mr Enright released a statement on Friday night which read: “I welcome that the elected members of Wexford County Council have today decided that no action will be taken in relation to the findings in the SIPO report published last week.
“I wish to state again that I regret the tone of the two emails sent to South East Radio. However, I was standing up to the radio station who were shown to have breached the Broadcasting Act and who I was informed were acting in a deliberately biased manner against the council.
“I am very passionate for the work that council staff and councillors do to make County Wexford a better place and some of that passion overflowed into these two e-mails. I cannot thank people enough for their support during this time. I have been overwhelmed and humbled by the large outpouring of support. Hundreds of messages of support, many from people I don’t even know and have never met.
“The council should have a good and constructive working relationship with our local radio station and we intend to look to put a Service Level Agreement in place with South East Radio to facilitate an improved relationship into the future.
“I am pleased that I can now draw a line under this matter and concentrate fully on leading the important work and priorities of the council including the delivery of essential public services, social and affordable housing, supporting communities in the fight against Covid-19 and the continued roll-out of our ambitious community and economic development programme.”
Cllr Kelly stood up to applaud the manager – who was clearly emotional after the meeting - and was followed by all of his fellow councillors and TDs present – save Pat Barden and Verona Murphy. Mr Enright was then hailed by Cllr Murphy for continuing to work despite the pressure he was under over recent months.