Scandal-hit council service back in the spotlight as former investigator reveals extent of alleged corruption
PUBLISHED: 09:25 23 August 2019 | UPDATED: 12:10 23 August 2019
An ex-forensic investigator for Tower Hamlets Council has delivered a blistering account of how his work in the borough's youth service was, he said, subject to a "cover up to avoid political embarrassment".
Mark Edmunds, 54, worked for the local authority from 2010 onwards and from 2014 was tasked with reviewing reports of corruption in the division.
He is now bringing two claims against the council of harassment and unfair dismissal caused by direct discrimination on the grounds of race and sex.
At a hearing at East London Tribunal Centre on Thursday, a series of explosive allegations emerged in Mr Edmunds's testimony.
In his witness statement, among the claims made were:
- Key officers under investigation were allowed to leave with settlements and redundancy packages, or permitted to stay on;
- Taxpayer funds were siphoned off into a nexus of fictitious organisations;
- Many of the employees investigated were ex-gang members with links to organised crime;
- A failure to issue DBS referrals allowed people dismissed for serious offences to go on working with children and vulnerable young adults;
- Documentation and files went missing and this was not reported to the Information Commissioner;
- Threats and intimidation to Mr Edmunds were not acknowledged, with risk assessments left incomplete or not acted on even as LBTH approved the installation of alarms and panic buttons in his home.
Mr Edmunds is represented by Francis Hoar of Field Court Chambers, who secured a High Court judgement that voided the election of ex-mayor Lutfur Rahman in 2015.
He is seeking to claim £529,000 from the council after being made redundant from a role that he claims was still needed.
Mr Edmunds has claimed his dismissal was "engineered by obstructing my investigations work… I was dismissed so the council could avoid complaints that it was discriminating against Bengali employees, even though I knew the claims were substantiated."
Allegations of top-tier "obstruction"
Senior officers, Mr Edmunds claimed, obstructed his investigations or failed to take action on the findings.
The interim head of service Claire Belgard, development manager Ronke Martins-Taylor and head of internal audit Mineesh Jani, he said, were among those that had excluded him and failed to refer members of the Youth Service involved in corruption.
He also claimed that the former Service Head for Safer Communities, Andy Bamber, who went on sick leave in spring 2016 and did not return, should have been investigated.
The testimony also cast doubt on the effectiveness of the Clear Up Team, whose lauded investigation into council corruption closed in spring 2017.
A number of officers under investigation left with settlements and, he claimed, "it was apparent that these agreements had been signed off by members of the Clear Up Board in their council capacities."
Officers "let off" amid safeguarding failures
Twelve senior employees were dismissed as a result of Mr Edmunds's work but others, he said, had been "allowed to leave" or were still employed at Tower Hamlets Council.
A rapid response worker sacked for gross misconduct in April 2016 was reinstated by the council's appeals sub-committee that November - despite findings of "serious fraudulent activities involving public funds".
Mohammed Aklim Saleh Ahmed Uddin, who the Advertiser has previously written about in relation to his promotion of cryptocurrency scam OneCoin, was suspended on full pay in August 2017 over allegations of "serious fraud and financial impropriety".
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Another employee with a criminal history worked with children for more than 12 months and allegedly received a £12,000 pay-off in July 2014.
Many individuals, Mr Edmunds said, were not referred to the Disclosure and Barring Service after being sacked for serious wrong-doing, meaning they were free to continue working with children, young people and vulnerable adults.
No criminal proceedings have been brought as a result of the investigations.
Cross-divisional issues and "fictitious organisations"
In his testimony, Mr Edmunds said the work led him to realise "there were problems within all the council directorates… and the departments which supported them".
The Internal Audit department, he said, was supposed to be monitoring credit card expenditure by checking one in 10 spends - but in some cases, checks had not been conducted for three years.
In addition, he claimed "large sums of public money were paid to fictitious organisations based on them holding a bank account and a borough address".
A property in Burslem Street, he said, came under the spotlight in 2015 that was controlled by Cllr Shaled Ali but also used by non-existent organisations that had received funds from the Youth Service.
On December 1, 2015 the property was secured by council officers after complaints from residents and a large quantity of drugs was found. Further work by Trading Standards identified other companies operating on the premises, including one called Stolen Land Limited: the directors of which were part of the youth service.
Mr Edmunds said: "When looked across the piece, the issues were so pervasive that it was impossible to believe that the problems were isolated and low level."
Information going missing
A large volume of files and information reportedly went missing before and during the investigations and, it has been claimed, were not reported to the Information Commissioner by managers, despite requests.
In addition, the claimant said a number of Freedom of Information requests submitted by members of the public - asking about what was going on in the youth service probe - were being responded to with incorrect information.
Two claims have been filed against Tower Hamlets Council: one in 2017 prior to the redundancy, and one in 2018.
In 2017, Mr Edmunds was told he was being made redundant as part of the restructure of the youth service, which he had never officially been part of.
He was then invited to join the Youth Service Senior Management Team alongside three people he had previously investigated.
At the time the majority of staff were Bengali and he said he believed the offer was "designed to antagonise" those managers and other staff.
Mr Edmunds said, he was also accused of racism and subject to intimidating behavior and threats during the course of his work.
Assessments found he was at "high risk" of harm and in danger along with his family, but only a few of the recommended safety measures were implemented.
He claimed: "I am sure that a significant factor behind my treatment was that I was a white man investigating Bengali officers."
At yesterday's hearing Anya Palmer, barrister for the council, questioned the accuracy of his allegations.
She said the reaction from minority ethnic officers to his would-be appointment on the SMT was a "legitimate concern", and said it was "immaterial" to the case itself if Mr Edmunds was "suggesting that there was some two-year long conspiracy."
The hearing continues.