Former council worker tells tribunal he was made a scapegoat for £2.5 million contracts bungle
Jim Thornhill said he was 'thrown under the bus' after 37 years of service
06 September, 2018 — By Tom Foot
A TOWN Hall employee of 37 years told a tribunal yesterday (Wednesday) he was “thrown under a bus” by his bosses looking for a scapegoat over a contracts bungle that cost the taxpayer £2.5million.
Jim Thornhill, a former public lighting and drainage manager at the Town Hall, was dismissed in his absence for gross misconduct in September last year. The 56-year-old argues there were significant failings in what he told the tribunal was “perhaps the biggest ever” internal investigation by the local authority.
No interview notes or witness statements were made available and the investigation had “focused on evidence that implied guilt”, the tribunal heard.
The tribunal heard that Mr Thornhill was unable to attend his disciplinary hearing as he was suffering depression after his son had a leg amputated following a horrific road accident.
He told the tribunal: “If I wasn’t being thrown under the bus over all of this you would have looked at my record and seen that I am an honest person. Everything I have done for Camden has been brushed aside after 37 years – it’s not like it’s two years. It’s 37 years.”
The tribunal heard how serious allegations were levelled against Mr Thornhill following an audit and internal investigation triggered by a legal challenge from construction firm FM Conway. The company had made an application to the High Court saying that Camden Council had set up a contract for “public realm, maintenance and improvement works” that favoured Volker Highways.
The council took legal advice from a QC following the challenge and agreed to settle at a cost of £2.5million – a move which was unknown to the public until it was revealed on the front page of the New Journal.
At the time Camden’s then finance chief Councillor Theo Blackwell said the “situation was unacceptable” but added that it was also “rare” and that measures were now in place to avoid any further blunders.
The tribunal heard yesterday how the council’s internal investigation found that Mr Thornhill had been mistakenly emailed a Volker Highways “price-list” by a senior manager – financial information he was not supposed to see. T
he specifications of the contract were later adjusted by Mr Thornhill in a change FM Conway argued had “enabled Volker to win the contract”, the council’s lawyer Suraj Sudra told the tribunal.
He argued that Mr Thornhill was at the time “very friendly” with one of Volker’s staff, and had once offered to help the man get some rugby tickets.
“This was extremely inappropriate behaviour,” he said, adding that Mr Thornhill had “stayed silent” about receiving the Volker spreadsheet even when he was made aware of FM Conway’s “High Court challenge”. “You wilfully withheld information,” Mr Sudra insisted, adding that as a long-serving employee he would have been well aware of the “ramifications of non-disclosure”.
Mr Thornhill, who has turned down financial offers from Camden to drop his case, repeatedly told the hearing he had immediately made a senior colleague aware that he had seen the Volker “price-list”. The information had not influenced the tender adjustments, he said.
His lawyer, Declan O’Dempsey, said the council, after its obvious disciplinary procedural failures, had resorted to desperate allegations it could not substantiate. He concluded: “Corruption, wilful dishonesty – these are extremely serious allegations he was being accused of … This required a stringent investigation. This was not a sufficient investigation. No note taking? We don’t know who was interviewed, what was said. It is very odd indeed. There are not amateurs in investigations. This is a big London authority, all staff are trained. It was completely inconsistent with procedure. It set up a presumption of dishonesty.”
Tribunal judge Kimbra Welch is due to make a judgment today (Thursday).