Robin Newton attempted to secure around £90,000 from a PSNI fund for Charter NI just weeks before he was appointed Assembly Speaker in May, the News Letter can reveal.
Mr Newton, whose links to Charter NI are coming under increasing scrutiny, last week made a statement to the Assembly in an attempt to clear up his role with an organisation whose chief executive, Dee Stitt, is alleged to be a UDA boss.
The DUP MLA told the Assembly that he had “offered advice” to Charter NI but had not held the formal title of “adviser” to the organisation and insisted that his involvement with Charter had been “no different than it would be with any organisation in my constituency seeking advice”.
At that point, Mr Newton apologised for having blocked an Assembly question about Charter NI without having declared his interest in the matter.
Now a document obtained by the News Letter shows that in March Mr Newton was making further arguments for Charter NI to get public money from another source and that at no point did he declare any link to Charter NI while doing so.
At the time, Mr Newton was a member of the Policing Board. One of the board’s responsibilities is to distribute to charitable causes the proceeds of the Police Property Fund, into which unclaimed money derived from criminal investigations is placed.
Until then, the money had been divided among the Police Community Safety Partnerships.
However, almost a year ago Mr Newton and prominent GAA member Ryan Feeney – now a senior figure at Queen’s University – were the two board members put on to a small sub-group to examine if the money could be used more effectively.
In March, they brought a report to the board’s Partnership Committee in which they proposed that the money should go to a project overseen by Charter NI.
The paper said that “the sub-group has received a submission from Charter NI and Paul Smyth”. Given that the opportunity was not advertised, it is not clear how Charter NI knew that the money was available in order to make a submission. When asked how Charter NI became aware of the funding, Mr Newton declined to comment.
The paper added that if the board approved the proposal it would initiate a pilot based on what Charter NI had suggested and it would be “subject to a procurement process”.
The early intervention project, it was said, would “secure confidence in policing” and “the sub-group and the PSNI are supportive of the proposal in principle”.
They specifically proposed that Mr Stitt “attend the committee to discuss the progress and development of the project”.
Dolores Kelly, then an SDLP MLA, was chair of the committee and said that Mr Newton “sang their [Charter NI’s] praises repeatedly”. She said that “what came back to us [from the sub-group] wasn’t what I or other members of the committee had anticipated”.
She recalled that just the day before the proposal was brought to the committee BBC Spotlight had broadcast very serious allegations about Mr Stitt “but Robin still very much advocated for Charter NI – there is absolutely no doubt about that; Robin was very, very vociferous in his support of Charter.”
Mrs Kelly said that at the time she was “utterly confused and bewildered at how Charter NI could know to submit this”, given that the fund had not been advertised.
Last week this newspaper asked the Policing Board for a copy of the document and asked whether, due to is stated commitment to openness, it would release the paper immediately.
Instead, the board said that it would treat the request as a Freedom of Information request, giving it up to a month to respond.
However, the News Letter has now obtained the document via other means.
There are some striking similarities between how the proposal to the policing board would have operated and how the Social Investment Fund (SIF) – which sees Charter NI get money from Stormont Castle – operates.
And, as with SIF, Charter NI would not actually have delivered large parts of the project – that was to be sub-contracted to Paul Smyth (formerly of Public Achievement) at £350-a-day and, to a lesser extent, to Dr Jerome Stein.
Instead, Charter NI would “manage the budget, staff and recruitment of volunteers...and will report to the funders”.
Eventually, the project was rejected by the full board in April. The minutes of that meeting record: “A member expressed disappointment at the Committee’s decision...” Several sources have told the News Letter that the member was Mr Newton.
There have been claims in recent days that Mr Newton has attended Charter NI board meetings. However, when asked if he could outline whether he did so, and in what capacity, Mr Newton declined to do so.
The News Letter put six questions to Mr Newton via the DUP (the Assembly has said that any further questions about the matter should be sent to the party).
A DUP spokesman said: “Mr Newton is now the Assembly Speaker and made a full statement to MLAs recently. It is not his intention to comment further on these matters.”