LINCOLNSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL
Journalist Richard Orange played a key role in bringing a council misconduct case to court, which has resulted in the jailing of a former council leader for 18 months.
The freelance, who runs the Lincoln-based Orchard News Bureau, spotted alterations to the councillor's written declaration of interests, which led him on a trail that ended in the witness box at crown court. Councillor Jim Speechley, former leader of Lincolnshire County Council, was jailed on Friday for misconduct in public office. The judge said the sentence reflected the serious nature of the crime.
He was found guilty of trying to influence the route of a new by-pass to enclose his land in a new development belt, which would have significantly increased its value. Richard uncovered the potential wrong-doing when he was following up straightforward member interests stories from public documents.
Speechley had added the field to his list of declared interests after the local elections in June 2001, which led Richard to believe he had recently purchased the fields. But the Land Registry told him it had not changed hands for at least 15 years.
Investigations with BBC journalist Matthew Gull, including visiting the area to ask locals, revealed the land had been under Speechley's ownership for 30-40 years - so the pair set about checking whether the then council leader had lawfully declared the field when discussing the project at various council meetings.
Richard said: "I had also begun asking questions about a story involving a key council audit and when I went back through the notebooks of different committees I again spotted the information about Speechley going to these meetings. "From my notes I was able to locate a number of other meetings where he failed to declare his interest. "I did not think this was anything other than a straightforward failure to declare an interest, which was dropped on a technicality.
"But the police investigation then found he had actually drawn the line on the map of where he preferred the route to go, which led to the charge of misconduct in public office." Richard wrote to the council with his findings, asking about Speechley's land interests and his support for the project, his letter triggering an internal investigation.
He then gave evidence at the subsequent crown court hearing about the shorthand notes he took during seven county council meetings in 2000 and 2001, in which the A1073 by-pass route was either discussed or mentioned in official papers before councillors.
In his opening address to the Jury, Speechley's defence barrister William Harbage QC said: "We are here because when Mr Orange discovered the land, the county council officers thought it would look bad - the fact that they had spent months and months doing absolutely nothing and now somebody was digging around." Richard testified that Speechley had not declared his interest in the scheme during any of the meetings.
He said: "Giving evidence was not as challenging as I thought it would be. "It was all factual and I was happy to co-operate. "The trickiest part was that after being interviewed by the police, my reports about council meetings could only include the bare bones of what was discussed."
He said it was safest not to include any colour or background that might be seen as influencing any future events. Richard, formerly of the Western Daily Press, Lincolnshire Echo, Cheshire Chronicle Series and Staffordshire Newsletter, went freelance in 2000 and is also a lecturer in media law at the University of Lincoln, where he also specialises in local government.
Speechley has signalled his intention to appeal against both the conviction and the sentence and thus remains a councillor. Read how the Lincolnshire Echo first brought the disgraced former council leader to book, here.
Wealden District Council insure with Zurich Municipal and still have no Whistle-blowing policy in place - coincidence or not? A number of councillor's declared interests may not be what they seem. Did Ian Kay fail to declare an interest when commentating on his father in law's application !!!!