Sunday, February 21, 2010

Glasgow law firms Biggart Baillie & Semple Fraser linked to Strathclyde Passenger Transport expenses scandal, more resignations expected soon

SPT-joining-up-journeysExpenses claims & hospitality from law firms hit the roof at SPT. Two Glasgow law firms, Biggart Baillie & Semple Fraser, have been dragged into the expenses scandal affecting Strathclyde Passenger Transport which has seen a slew of resignations in the past week, after it transpired SPT officials had claimed well over £100,000 on expenses, mainly it seems on ‘fact finding’ trips around the world.

Today's Sunday Herald contains further revelations where the newspaper reports “a fourth official is facing questions. Assistant chief executive Valerie Davidson assessed the tenders for outsourcing the public body’s legal advice, and one of the firms that was approved employs her husband as a finance expert.”

The Sunday Herald reports :

New SPT officials in expenses row

By Tom Gordon and Paul Hutcheon

Published on 21 Feb 2010

Strathclyde Passenger Transport is facing a fresh crisis, with allegations against its new chairman and a senior official after a week that saw the travel quango lose three of its top personnel.

Labour councillor Jonathan Findlay, who was named as the new SPT chairman on Wednesday after his predecessor Alastair Watson quit amid an expenses scandal, is facing a standards inquiry for failing to declare a football junket.

Chief executive Ron Culley and vice-chairman Davie McLachlan stood down on Wednesday and Thursday respectively after it emerged officials had run up more than £100,000 on expenses, much of it on fact-finding trips round the world.

Bob Wylie, the head of communications, is also under pressure to go over his expenses.

Now the Sunday Herald can reveal a fourth official is facing questions. Assistant chief executive Valerie Davidson assessed the tenders for outsourcing the public body’s legal advice, and one of the firms that was approved employs her husband as a finance expert.

Answers to Freedom of Information requests by teacher Gordon Cairns showed senior officials at the quango – which runs Glasgow Subway but little else – claimed £117,573 in three years.

Around £50,000 went on foreign trips, while Mr Culley, who quit citing ill health, also spent £6,500 dining in restaurants.

Mr McLachlan, a Labour councillor from South Lanarkshire, resigned after claiming £17,544 in mileage costs.

A trip to Manchester in May 2008 costing £1700 coincided with Rangers playing Zenit St Petersburg in the city in the UEFA Cup final.

SPT officials arranged to meet their Manchester counterparts for an hour on the morning of the match, then stayed to watch it.

It has now emerged that Mr Findlay, a 40-year-old solicitor, was also at the match through corporate hospitality, but failed to declare it within a month, as required by law.

An updated register from this month reveals he received transport to the match, a ticket and hospitality courtesy of Castlemilk-based Castlebrae Drainage.

Mr Watson also went with the firm, as did a third Glasgow councillor, Jim Todd.

A failure to register an interest within a month is a breach of the Councillor’s Code Of Conduct, and falls foul of the 2003 regulations governing the law on Ethical Standards In Public Life.

Breaches of the code are investigated by the Standards Commission For Scotland, and can result in councillors being suspended.

It is understood the commission will now be asked to investigate Mr Findlay’s case.

With the departure of Mr Watson, Mr Culley and Mr McLachlan, the spotlight has now fallen on Ms Davidson as one of the last remaining members of the old regime at SPT.

SPT used to rely on a team of in-house lawyers for its legal work, but opted in 2008 to create a “framework” of firms to handle its legal dealings.

According to an SPT document, Ms Davidson assessed the tenders alongside her fellow assistant chief executive Gordon MacLennan and senior legal adviser Terry Lynch.

One of the firms that made it on the chosen “panel” was Biggart Baillie, which employs Ms Davidson’s husband Alasdair in a senior management role.

SPT’s hospitality register also shows Mr MacLennan accepted two invitations to Ayr Races from law firms that subsequently made on the framework panel. Biggart Baillie took him to the event in March 2008, while Semple Fraser played host the following month.

The SPT report that recommended both these firms be included on the panel was dated July 2008.

Although there is no suggestion of wrongdoing, the episode piles further pressure on the agency.

Castlebrae Drainage refused to say why its boss, Tommy Easton, had invited the three Labour councillors to the game in Manchester or the value of the hospitality.

In his declaration of parliamentary interests, Labour MSP Andy Kerr said the transport, ticket and hospitality he received for the event from a separate firm was worth about £1500.

An SPT spokeswoman said: “SPT has an approved list of legal firms. We have a stringent assessment process that those legal firms need to be checked against before being added to the list.

“Valerie Davidson is not involved in that process and had made a declaration of interest with regards her husband’s employer.”

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