West Mainland councillor Gary Robinson has been cleared of any wrongdoing in a Standards Commission investigation relating to remarks he made about the business activities of fellow SIC member Caroline Miller last December.
The two complaints, understood to have been made by Mrs Miller and, separately, her husband Frank Miller and his fellow Judane director Judith Miller, were looked into and it was confirmed this week that chief investigating officer Stuart Allan had “decided that the respondent has not contravened” the code of conduct which all councillors must abide by.
Responding to the verdict, Mr Robinson told The Shetland Times: “I’m delighted and hugely relieved to have been cleared of this. A complaint to ethical standards is not something I would wish upon any councillor. It has been hugely time-consuming and to be honest there’s so many better things to be getting on with in terms of what the council needs to deliver. I’m just looking forward to getting back to doing the work that I was put on the council to do.”
Mrs Miller said: “As a council we have to set aside the past and get on with working for Shetland as a whole. We have a lot of problems which Audit Scotland has reported on which will be investigated by the Accounts Commission. The past is the past and we should work towards the future.”
The complaints are understood to have been related to comments Mr Robinson made following the revelation that the council had agreed to write off debts of £411,000 in loan repayments owed by Judane. Following that, The Shetland Times and others raised questions about why £21,500 in payments from the then tenant of Judane’s factory at Gremista Industrial Estate, budget salesman Chris Hodge, had been made to an account held by Mrs Miller as sole trader in Northern Isles Knitwear.
In early January, Mrs Miller issued a statement through her lawyers stating that every penny of the £21,500 had been used to pay off Judane’s creditors. But before that, Mr Robinson said that if Mr Hodge’s claim that payments were “made to another company to avoid making payments to creditors, including the development trust, then I think that’s fraud and that should be a police matter”.
At that stage, Mrs Miller had unsuccessfully sought an injunction at the Court of Session in Edinburgh to prevent Mr Robinson and local news agency Shetland News from making defamatory statements about her and the knitwear firm.
Although Mr Allan’s full ruling will not be published, it is understood that Mr Robinson was exonerated on the basis that it was entirely reasonable for him to seek clarification of the way the Northern Isles Knitwear account was being used and that as a member of the council’s development committee he was acting within his remit.
It is further understood that Mr Robinson was judged by the investigating officer to have been upholding, rather than breaching, his duty as a councillor and was raising legitimate concerns in the public interest at a time when the SIC’s silence risked exacerbating the public’s negative reaction to the decision to write off Judane’s debt.
Councillor Jonathan Wills, himself still under investigation by Mr Allan over a complaint signed by convener Sandy Cluness, vice-convener Josie Simpson and senior SIC staff, welcomed the ruling. Dr Wills said he felt the complaint had been a “malicious and frivolous attack” on Mr Robinson’s integrity.
The complaint against Dr Wills alleges that he breached the code of conduct in making critical remarks about former chief executive David Clark last autumn, following a disciplinary hearing which found no evidence that Mr Clark had verbally threatened him in a phone call.
Dr Wills, who claims the hearing was flawed and that any complaint arising from it is therefore invalid, said he was becoming increasingly frustrated about the length of time being taken to resolve the case. “There must be a statute of limitations in these matters. Seven months is more than long enough. My human rights are starting to be infringed by the excessive delay.”
Another two councillors, South Mainland member Jim Budge and North Mainland member Addie Doull, have had to wait even longer for an outcome. They are still under the commission’s microscope over their involvement in a debate about funding the Shetland Livestock Marketing Group (SLMG) in January 2009. They both declared an interest as members of SLMG but took part in a vote on whether to grant the organisation money.
The complaint against Mr Budge and Mr Doull was made anonymously in March last year. The chief investigating officer works to a notional three-month timescale on cases, but in the recent experience of Shetland councillors the average time taken tends to be significantly longer.
Mrs Miller herself was the subject of two complaints, submitted just before Christmas, over her involvement in Judane. One has been dropped and the other is still being investigated.
The commission – the body responsible for upholding ethical standards in public life in Scotland – has the power to censure, suspend or disqualify councillors for a period of up to five years if it decides there has been a breach of the code of conduct.