Paul Priestly – the senior civil servant demoted for misconduct three years ago – wrote a fierce letter to the BBC attacking its reporting of a whistleblower’s complaint which led to an Audit Office report sharply critical of his then department, it has emerged.
Mr Priestly, who was suspended as permanent secretary of the Department of Regional Development in 2010 after secretly penning a letter which attacked Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC), yesterday appeared before the committee for the first time since then.
It was the first time that Mr Priestly, whose involvement in the sacking of Northern Ireland Water directors was widely criticised after one, Declan Gormley, was subsequently exonerated, had spoken in public for several years.
The former NIO official, who was rumoured to have been in line to take over as head of the civil service, is now working for another public sector quango, the Strategic Investment Board.
Yesterday’s PAC hearing was told that several years before the NI Water saga Mr Priestly had written to the BBC to furiously complain about an entirely separate issue – the corporation’s report of allegations from a whistleblower who had seen contracts for the manufacture of road signs which should have gone to his company instead go to a rival.
PAC veteran John Dallat put it to Mr Priestly that he had written to the BBC to “denounce the whistleblower”. Mr Priestly said that he “definitely thought it [the report] was unfair and didn’t give the department a chance to respond”, alleging that the journalism had been “one-sided” but insisted he had not sought to “denigrate” the whistleblower.
Mr Priestly’s letter alleged that the allegations were “unfounded”, yet yesterday he acknowledged that elements of the whistleblower’s complaint had been “legitimate”.
DUP MLA Trevor Clarke then asked Mr Priestly whether he was, on reflection, right to have written to the BBC to denounce its report.
Mr Priestly said that he would like time to consider his response, to which Mr Clarke said: “You’ve had a few years.”
Mr Clarke accused Mr Priestly of being “evasive” and “obstructive”. Asked about the letter by Sinn Fein’s Daithi McKay, Mr Priestly said: “I know of the letter but haven’t re-read it.”
Told by Mr Clarke that several of his recollections were unsatisfactorily “vague”, Mr Priestly said that was “unfair”.
Mr McKay said it was an “appalling display of defending the indefensible”. And he said it was inconsistent for Mr Priestly to say he was uncertain about several key aspects of the investigation yet profess himself satisfied that fraud did not take place.
Committee chairwoman Michaela Boyle said that she saw no evidence that “the department was motivated by anything other than to cover- up”.
But Mr Priestly insisted that the Balfour report was “thorough”.
The Audit Office believed that there were “indications of favouritism” in the award of contracts (which pre-dated Mr Priestly’s role at the department).
Malcolm McKibbon, the head of the civil service, said a High Court judge who found against the department in a court challenge over the controversy had nevertheless rejected claims of bias in the decision to award contracts.
The officials present insisted that an investigation by DRD official Ronnie Balfour into the whistleblower’s claims was credible, despite acknowledging a series of shortcomings in how it was carried out, including a failure to interview the whistleblower himself and a decision to interview two of the key witnesses together.
MLAs expressed incredulity that the civil servants could defend the report while admitting that the process followed was inadequate. Sinn Fein’s Chris Hazzard asked the officials: “If the process was wrong, can you just stumble on the right conclusion by accident.”
There was also uneasiness expressed at the movement of Mr Balfour into a position in Roads Service – the service he had just been investigating – almost as soon as he finished his investigation.
Mr Priestly said he could understand why some would see this as evidence of “cosiness” but insisted that such a perception was misguided.
Current DRD permanent secretary Richard Pengelly admitted the process behind the Balfour investigation was “flawed” but denied that meant that his conclusions were flawed.