THE new leader of a council tainted by a major sleaze scandal has admitted making a false expenses claim over a trip to Scotland – but insists it was a genuine mistake.
The claim, by Rotherham Council leader Roger Stone, was discovered during a police inquiry into an anti-poverty organisation run by Garvin Reed, the disgraced former deputy leader of the authority who is currently serving a three-year prison sentence for his part in stealing 172,000 of public money.
Opposition Conservatives say the revelation suggests Labour has made an "inappropriate appointment" with a leader who now has "a doubt cast on his integrity".
Coun Stone, who took up the top post last month, denies dishonesty and claims he made a genuine mistake when claiming for a rail fare when he had in fact travelled up to Motherwell in an officer's car and then returned in Reed's black Saab.
The Labour leader is adamant he has repaid the money, which is understood to be 50, and that there is no question of him standing down.
Extensive efforts by Rotherham Council's internal audit team failed to find a record of the repayment in either late 1998 or early 1999. The council said the method of recording at the time would make it virtually impossible to trace the payment.
Coun Stone attended a voluntary interview with the police shortly after the investigation into the National Local Government Forum Against Poverty began in November 1998.
He told the Yorkshire Post he informed detectives about the claim, made in February 1998, and though he was adamant he had repaid the money he could not recollect when the repayment was made.
It is understood South Yorkshire Police decided to leave the matter in the hands of Rotherham Council because detectives were concentrating solely on the Forum.
Asked if he accepted he had been dishonest, Coun Stone said: "I don't accept that at all.
"I'm human. I've made plenty of mistakes and part of the process is if it's pointed out to you or whatever, you rectify it. I'm certain I paid it back."
The Yorkshire Post has spoken to Coun Stone twice to try to ascertain whether he could recall when he repaid the money. On the first occasion he said it was either "after his police interview or through Alan Carruthers, who was chief executive at the time."
On the second, he said he could not remember at all when he made the repayment.
A spokeswoman for Rotherham Council said: "Whilst it was their (internal audit's) firm and sincere belief that the sum had been repaid and most likely after the start of the police investigation, as no record has so far been found it is not now possible to categorically say."
Conservative councillor Susan Smith, said: "I wonder how widely this was known among the rank and file of the Labour group.
"It does cast doubt on the integrity of our new leader – it's a bit disconcerting.
"I wonder how innocently you can overlook something like this. If I was faced with that situation, there was no way I could put in a claim for public money for travel if I hadn't actually used it. One wonders how that could occur.
"It's a bit difficult to accept somebody who's supposed to be leading the authority in a new direction who has got this in their background."
A regional Labour Party spokesman said: "The police were aware of these events and decided no action was necessary. Since that time, there have been no further developments and no further action has been required. We look forward to working with Councillor Stone and Rotherham Labour group in the future."
The secretary of the Labour group of councillors in Rotherham, Reg Littleboy, said he had not been aware of the issue until Coun Stone contacted him to advise him of the Yorkshire Post's interest. He said: "I'm happy with what he told me. I've full confidence in him.
"There was no reason for me to be made aware, if there was a mistake made and it was rectified."