A week after the News Letter’s revelation that Jimmy Spratt gave inaccurate information to Stormont’s standards watchdog, a fourth political party has called for a new investigation.
Last Saturday this newspaper revealed that we have evidence – in the form of an audio recording – that the DUP MLA explicitly denied having ever used the phrase “except the nutters” about opponents of the Maze peace centre.
Yet in an interview with Standards Commissioner Douglas Bain and a letter to the Assembly’s Standards and Privileges Committee, Mr Spratt repeatedly and adamantly insisted that he had never denied using the words.
Mr Bain — who never heard the recording as the News Letter was never told that the accuracy of Mr Spratt’s interview with us was being challenged – accepted the MLA’s version of events, saying in his report that there was “no independent evidence of what was said during that telephone conversation”.
That formed a key part of his finding two weeks ago that Mr Spratt had not broken the MLA code of conduct over the affair.
Since then, the UUP, TUV and Alliance have called for the matter to be reinvestigated in light of the new evidence.
Yesterday the Green Party’s sole MLA, Steven Agnew – who as a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee voted in good faith to endorse Mr Bain’s report – said that he believed the issue now needed to be re-examined.
He told the News Letter: “In light of the new information, it is important that the Standards and Privileges Committee re-looks at this case to see whether our original decision was the correct one.”
Mr Agnew said that although the committee gives instructions to Mr Bain and is ultimately the judge of whether an MLA has broken the code of conduct, it does not undertake its own fact-finding work.
He said: “We rely on the committee to do the investigation – that’s not our role. We’re playing the role of judge as opposed to investigator so we can only judge the facts as they are presented to us.”
The mounting political pressure for a fresh investigation means that the issue is sure to be discussed at next week’s meeting of the standards committee.
But even without the committee’s instruction, Mr Bain has the power to reopen his investigation. And, if that does not happen, an MLA or a member of the public could make a fresh complaint about Mr Spratt’s conduct, triggering a new investigation.
Last June, Mr Spratt went so far as to threaten legal action if this newspaper reported what he had said. Yet, more than six months after we reported his use of the phrase, the South Belfast MLA has yet to complain to us that he was misquoted.
A day after last June’s committee hearing, the News Letter contacted Mr Spratt. A recording of that phone conversation proves that when it was put to Mr Spratt that he had used the phrase “except the nutters”, he said : “No, absolutely not, Sam. You print that if you want. I’ll be seeing you in court as well. OK?”