"STITCHED UP"

After rooking residents with a third successive year of council tax rises, Sandwell’s socialist council was able to make another generous donation to the corporate lawyers’ comfort fund.

Solicitors from Grimsby were employed to produce a report focusing on the doings of ex-councillor Richard Marshall. Marshall, failed jobbing builder and protégée of slippery Steve Eling, had a rapid rise. Then an equally sudden fall when shown to be bad mouthing colleagues and council employees to a local blogger. Attempts at bare faced bluster failed and when some ordure from the fan started to stick to master Steve, Marshall was doomed.

Marshall was parachuted into Smethwick ward as a replacement for long serving respectable Labour councillor Vic Sylvester, who was unceremoniously ditched.

Alarm bells ought to have started to deafen when tricky Dicky, now Cllr. Marshall, was taken to court by Sandwell council for non-payment of his council tax. An attempt at the council to cover this up failed. And, Eling promoted Marshall to the Sandwell council cabinet as leisure chief, a post he seems to reserve for those having difficulty managing financially.

Marshall’s replacement and current incumbent, Cllr. W Gavan appears to have been involved in a number of companies which have gone bust running gay clubs. Also, it’s understood that the Labour party is investigating improprieties involving Labour fixer and recently Labour party suspended ex Cllr. Derek Rowley at Gavan’s Langley ward selection meeting. Another unlucky pick by Eling?

The next stage in the Marshall saga was a court declaring him bankrupt. He’d failed to pay a judgement debt awarded to a widow who, the court papers indicated, had been conned by Marshall into parting with cash to fund a bogus building project. The response of many of his Labour colleagues was to rally round Marshall. And Eling confirmed Marshall in his cabinet post.

What finally produced his political demise was his involvement with Julian Saunders, aka the Sandwell Skidder.  The Skidder was a longstanding critic of the shenanigans of the Socialist Sandwell council.

Steve Eling had secured the council leadership by the whisker of one vote. After this, he seems to have made either a Damascene conversion or a visit to Specsavers. For the first time, after years as deputy leader of the council, he saw a morass of misdoings and corruption at Sandwell council and determined to “clean the swamp”.

In this campaign, Eling suffered occasionally convenient blind spots. So when an internal council disciplinary report found that his cabinet appointee, Cllr. Simon Hackett, had improperly revealed confidential information, Eling and his deputy Cllr Syeda Khatun both co-incidentally sent e-mails excusing Hackett and effectively halting the investigation.

About the same time, the council’s deputy chief executive and monitoring officer Melanie Dudley, who had ultimate responsibility for the Hackett investigation was forced out of her job, the subject of a denigration campaign conducted by Marshall. The report of the gents from Grimsby found there was a “campaign” by Marshall to “discredit” her which was “bullying” and “disrespectful”.

Subsequently, the independent Information Commissioner concluded that there had been a breach of data protection in the Hackett case.

Marshall and Eling arranged a meeting with the Skidder. Both attended. At this they seem to have convinced Saunders of the sincerity of the “clean up” campaign, temporarily neutralised his criticism of the council and Marshall proceeded over many months to feed the Skidder information for his blog, much of it confidential, directed against political rivals among Labour councillors and against non-compliant council officers.  

The Skidder then realised he was being used and published all the Whats App exchanges between himself and Marshall. The vile malice and sordid nature of these communications was starkly revealed and Marshall’s game was up. He was allowed to continue as a councillor until his term expired in May 2018, since which, we understand, he has departed Sandwell to begin a new life where he’s less well known.

Sandwell’s own legal department was not trusted to provide a report on complaints made against both Marshall and Eling arising out of the What’s App messages, so the outside lawyers had were engaged. Their report was received by Sandwell council’s Ethics committee on 28th September.  Unsurprisingly, it decided Marshall had broken the code of conduct for councillors.

How much council tax payers’ money was spent to get these learned gents to state the blindingly obvious?

What was the use of the report? The Ethics committee knew that, since Marshall is now an ex councillor, it could take no disciplinary action against him. Another committee had reached the same conclusion when ex councillor Derek Rowley was accused of flogging off council property.

A cynic might suggest that a motive was to convince the gullible that Sandwell’s Labour leadership was serious in exposing wrongdoing among its members. Unfortunately, any such impression was destroyed by an obvious lack of transparency at the Ethics meeting. The identity of the councillor disciplined for soliciting a donation from a company and then dealing with its planning application was concealed. It was Cllr. Costigan There was no mention that a Mrs. Eling was the complainant in another matter discussed. But then Costigan is an Eling cabinet appointment and Mrs. Eling is the wife of Cllr. Eling. The names of others less favoured were freely bandied about.

But the report was not without its uses. It focused blame on Marshall and concluded that Eling “was not involved” in the Whats App messages.

In the very narrowest sense Eling was not involved in the Whats App messages. They were conversations between Marshall and Saunders. But Eling’s presence at the initial meeting with the Skidder and Marshall is evidence of a joint enterprise. It strains credulity to imagine that Eling as a party to the original scheme did not monitor its progress. In the published communications between Marshall and Skidder there is evidence that Eling was aware of some of the exchanges. Saunders has also published direct communications he had with Eling.

Eling’s reponses to the publication of the Whats App transcripts have ranged from suggesting that they were forgeries to a recent refusal to answer questions on the subject posed by left wing Labour blog Skwawkbox on the basis he was “too busy”. 

The conclusion of the expensive out of town solicitors was more generous to Eling than a report prepared for the West Bromwich West Constituency Labour party, which was unanimously accepted at a recent meeting with a recommendation that Eling be reported to Labour’s National Executive. Those voting in support included deputy leader Khatun, Costigan and the Eling over promoted Peter Hughes. Signs the rats are leaving.

In a later interview with an Express and Star reporter, [published 6th October] Marshall claimed he had been “stitched up” and forced out of the council for raising allegations of wrongdoing. If the latter suggestion has any merit it means Eling has had limited success with his dust pan and brush at the council. Perhaps, he’s got a bit of dust in his eyes…. again.

Marshall doesn’t name who he claims did the stitching up. He was similarly selective in his co-operation with the investigators and they may have been denied a full picture.

It’s time for the organ grinder as well as the monkey to face the music. In any decent responsible party, Eling’s dance card would have been marked and his last paso doble performed.