Failure to recover disputed payments from disgraced police chief ‘a tragedy’

THE failure to recover hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money given in potentially unlawful pay and perks to disgraced senior police officers has been described as a “tragedy” by an MP.

Former chief constable of Cleveland Police Sean Price
Former chief constable of Cleveland Police Sean Price

It emerged today that Cleveland’s police and crime commissioner, who was suing the force’s former chief constable Sean Price for £500,000, has settled for less than five per cent of that figure and will not pursue the claim through the courts.

Barry Coppinger was trying to claw back salary and bonuses it is believed Mr Price was wrongly paid across a number of years before he was sacked for gross misconduct in 2012, but in the end accepted an offer of £23,000.

He said this was due to mounting legal costs during a time of budget pressures and having consideration for Mr Price’s ability to pay more. His office has already spent £30,000 on legal fees pursuing the case.

Mr Coppinger said other police commissioners and forces had considered similar civil claims before deciding not to proceed.

In 2013, North Yorkshire PCC Julia Mulligan was forced to abandon attempts to reclaim £100,000 in disputed allowances paid to the force’s chief constable Grahame Maxwell and his deputy Adam Briggs by the now-defunct police authority.

A report published by the PCC showed that several of the perks paid to Mr Briggs and Mr Maxwell were unlikely to have been lawful, but court action to recover the money was ruled out as potentially too costly to the public purse.

Mr Briggs retired in 2011 but in 2012 a watchdog report confirmed he was given £31,647.06 over three years to pay for development and medical cover. Mr Maxwell left North Yorkshire Police in May 2012. In a 2010 probe, both were found guilty of misconduct for helping relatives in a police recruitment drive.

A Yorkshire Post investigation in 2013 revealed the widespread provision of lucrative extra benefits and pay to chief police officers outside of tightly restricted national regulations.

Skipton MP Julian Smith, who has previously criticised payments to senior police officers, said: “These payments should never have been made in the first place, it is a real shame that it is unlikely the tax-payer will get them back. These were contracts agreed by previous authorities and it is these authorities that ought to be held to account.

“Their successors are having to make a judgement about getting their money back and not wasting more money if they don’t think there is a chance of recovering the funds.

“It is a tragedy these men have got away with it and we will have to be clear that every public body spending public money should have transparent contracts that are clear for every tax-payer so they can’t be abused in the way that they have.”

In a document on the PCC’s website, Mr Coppinger said the case against Mr Price, who lives in North Yorkshire, was based on the legal argument that the payments were originally made “by mistake of law”.

He accepted the £23,000 offer was a “modest proportion” of what had been hoped for, but it was made in good faith, with reference to his ability to pay.

Mr Price, a father of two, has allowed the force to see financial documents, the PCC said.

Mr Coppinger said: “I concluded that I faced a choice either to accept the sum which Mr Price had demonstrated he could afford or proceed to court, risking an estimated overall six-figure sum in court costs which was unlikely to be realistically recoverable.”

He said the force had already spent about £30,000 on external barristers’ fees - £7,000 more than Mr Price’s settlement.

He added that other PCCs and forces had considered similar civil claims before deciding not to proceed.

Mr Coppinger said the payments Mr Price received were investigated under the wide-ranging Operation Sacristy inquiry into alleged corruption, but did not result in criminal charges.

He said: “Although ending the claim will mean that the court will not have the opportunity to address the legal questions, taking all of the considerations in the round I have determined that it would be appropriate to conclude the matter on the basis of the payment of the sum offered.”

Mr Price said in a statement: “This was a difficult decision for me as I had a strong case that the payments were lawful and should not be repaid 10 years later.

“However, the case has cost me several thousand pounds already and the public a great deal more. The only people benefiting have been lawyers.

“I made the decision that the best course of action was to settle now to prevent the costs escalating further.

“Notwithstanding our differences, I would like to pass my best to all at Cleveland Police in dealing with the financial challenges facing the force in the future.”

Mr Price was the first chief constable in 35 years to be sacked. An inquiry found he lied about his role in the recruitment of the former police authority chairman’s daughter.

A year ago it was revealed that Mr Price would not face criminal charges after he was investigated as part of the Operation Sacristy inquiry into alleged corruption within the force.

In October 2013 Mr Price was branded “shameful” by the police watchdog after being found guilty of gross misconduct.

A disciplinary hearing concluded that Mr Price misled the Independent Police Complaints Commission by lying and by trying to get a member of staff to lie for him.

IPCC commissioner Nicholas Long said Mr Price believed his position meant he could order people to do as he wished, adding that his standards have fallen far below what would be expected.

He said: “Sean Price’s attempts to mislead the IPCC investigation by lying and putting pressure on a member of staff to lie on his behalf were shameful.”

Mr Price has been on bail for more than two and a half years after he was arrested in August 2011.

He said he had not been interviewed regarding any criminal matter during that time.

In October 2012 he became the first chief constable to be sacked in 35 years after he was found guilty of gross misconduct. The Independent Police Complaints Commission found he lied about his role in the recruitment of the former police authority chairman’s daughter.

Mr Price initiated the Operation Sacristy inquiry and said he assisted external investigators despite concerns about their methods, which he likened to the TV show Life On Mars.

He claimed when confidential documents were lost on a local golf course, he directed a specialist search team should assist.

“It was clear to me the investigation lacked focus and direction and was following rumour and speculation as if it were evidence,” he said.

Commissioner Long said previously of Mr Price: “He almost got away with his attempted deception. However, the member of staff in question showed great integrity and courage in refusing to be bullied and stood up to him by asking to submit a new witness statement to the IPCC, fully explaining Mr Price’s role in this matter.

“Mr Price appeared to think his position as chief constable gave him the power to order people to do as he wished.

“A chief constable must set the standards for the police force to follow. Sean Price appears to have forgotten this and he set his own standards, which fell far below those that would be expected.

“He has attempted to intimidate and bully staff under his leadership and mislead an independent investigation.

“He has failed at that - and, most significantly, he has failed the police officers and staff he led, the police service as a whole and the public of Cleveland.”