Members of the press and public were ordered to leave a council meeting while the theft of public money was discussed yesterday.
Councillors gathered to talk about an investigation into fraud worth more than £12,000 by a local authority employee but agreed to hold the matter in private to allow for an “open discussion”.
The 11th hour decision was made following advice from Lisa Simpson, head of legal and governance services, who said the individual in question might be identified if the issue was discussed in public.
It comes after The Courier reported last week that the missing money had gone unnoticed for 15 months, until a resident flagged up a problem and the theft was detected.
An audit report on the issue, published last week, gave details of the case without naming the employee, but this option was not considered at yesterday’s meeting before councillors unanimously agreed to discuss the matter behind closed doors.
Last week’s audit report said: “The thefts occurred over a 15-month period prior to the service being alerted by a customer that their council tax account was incorrect and amounted to £12,470.94.”
The decision to exclude reporters and the public was criticised by Perth and North Perthshire MP Pete Wishart, who said taxpayers deserved to know how the fraud was allowed to happen.
“This is pretty alarming stuff,” he said.
“I understand the need to conduct some parts of the meeting in private if police investigations are still active, however to ban the press from an entire section of the meeting does nothing to reassure the public about the way the council manages allegations of fraud.
“Perth and Kinross taxpayers have a right to know that this is being dealt with properly and asking local reporters to leave the room just shines the spotlight further on this issue.
“I will be seeking further reassurances from legal services at Perth and Kinross Council about how this is being handled and about press access to meetings.”
When asked if the press was entitled to challenge these decisions, a press officer advised The Courier to make written requests in advance of the meeting.
A statement released later, on behalf of the convener of the audit committee, councillor Eric Drysdale said: “Regarding the report considered in private by the audit committee earlier today, I can confirm that, contrary to some recent local press coverage, no resident received any additional or incorrect bill in connection with the activities that were the subject of the report. These activities involved a series of low-level transactions which made them initially hard to detect.
“As stated in the report, the total sum identified has been repaid and the person is no longer employed by the council. A number of actions were taken immediately to strengthen the controls in the cash office.
“In relation to the exclusion of the press and public, the grounds are set out in legislation which the elected members are familiar with, and also in the council’s standing orders. The decision by the committee at that time is final.”
The council audit said a cash office employee, who no longer works for the council and has been reported to the police, was “routinely reversing cash transactions”.
It said the officer was not caught for more than a year as they were not filling out proper records, which went unnoticed by the department supervisor.
Ms Simpson said at the meeting that “a number of improvement actions” had been put in place following the thefts but members of the public were not allowed to stay to hear what they are.
She added: “The activities in question involved a series of low level transactions over a period of time which made initial detection difficult.
“The individual repaid the money in full so there has been no financial detriment whatsoever to any individual resident or indeed to the wider public in terms of the money that was collected.”