Lerwick North councillor Caroline Miller has become the third SIC member in the past month to be cleared of any wrongdoing by the body which upholds ethical standards in public life.
The Standards Commission has exonerated Mrs Miller on all counts after a complaint in December that she had used her position as a councillor to seek preferential treatment for her family’s knitwear firm Judane and over questions relating to payments made to her as a sole trader in Northern Isles Knitwear.
Mrs Miller said she felt “relief” and “delight” at being cleared having spent the past six months worrying about the complaint, adding that the legal advice she had received from SIC monitoring officer Jan Riise all the way through had been “first class” and she wished to thank him.
It follows Westside councillor Gary Robinson and Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills being cleared of complaints last month. A separate complaint against Mrs Miller was also dropped without the need for further examination by chief investigating officer Stuart Allan, as was an unrelated complaint against SIC convener Sandy Cluness.
In early December it emerged that the council had written off loan repayments of £411,000 owed by Judane, a firm in which her husband Frank Miller and sister Judith Miller are both directors. Following that, Mrs Miller faced questions over £21,500 in rent payments from the former tenant of the company’s Blackhill Industrial Estate factory, budget salesman Chris Hodge, which had been made to her Northern Isles Knitwear account.
She criticised media reporting of the matter, explaining she had been completely bound by confidentiality surrounding the agreement between Judane and the SIC at the time. In early January, having spoken to the various interested parties, she was able publicly to demonstrate that the money paid into her account had been used to pay off Judane’s creditors and that she had derived no personal benefit from the arrangement.
The complaint which Mr Robinson was cleared over had been made by the Millers relating to remarks he made about the deal. He 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”.
Judane borrowed a total of £860,000 in two separate loans from Shetland Development Trust, now the economic development unit. It was given an initial £525,000 loan in 1993 to build and equip the factory and, a decade later, a further £335,000 was loaned as working capital.
Full details of the settlement are still subject to confidentiality between the two parties, but in a statement in January the economic development unit said a total of £761,000 had been paid back with a further £190,000 to come – leaving the £411,000 shortfall.
Asked on local radio whether she understood public concern about the debt to Judane – which employed 78 people before manufacturing ceased in April 2005 – being written off, Mrs Miller said the company had repaid all of the capital loaned to it by Shetland Development Trust and had contributed around £15 million to the local economy over the past three decades. “Whatever the deal is I think it is a very good deal for Shetland,” she said.