Stormont’s standards commissioner needs to re-examine his report about DUP MLA Jimmy Spratt in light of new evidence, the man who prompted the probe last night said.
On Saturday the News Letter revealed that Mr Spratt inaccurately told standards commissioner Douglas Bain that he never denied having used the phrase “except the nutters” to describe opponents of the Maze peace centre.
Mr Spratt used the phrase at a Stormont committee hearing last June but initially denied it when it was put to him in a general way at the committee and specifically when contacted by this newspaper.
A phone recording of a brief News Letter interview with Mr Spratt last year proves that he explicitly denied having said “except the nutters” and went on to threaten legal action if we reported what he had said.
But, when interviewed by Mr Bain, Mr Spratt repeatedly said that he had never denied saying “except the nutters”, a claim which Mr Bain accepted, saying that there was “no independent evidence of what was said during that telephone conversation” and that was a key part of his finding two weeks ago that Mr Spratt had not broken the MLA code of conduct over the affair.
The News Letter never provided Mr Bain with our record of the phone conversation to substantiate our report that Mr Spratt had denied saying “except the nutters” as we were never told that our report was being challenged by the DUP MLA.
Over the weekend there was no public comment from Mr Spratt or his party about the new evidence.
Last night the Ulster Unionist chief whip, Robin Swann, whose complaint last July prompted Mr Bain’s investigation, called on the commissioner to look again at his findings.
The North Antrim MLA said: “Mr Bain needs to look at his initial inquiry and see if it was carried out thoroughly enough.”
And the UUP man said that he was also unhappy that there had been no follow-up to a letter from Mr Bain which appears to have got lost in the post and meant that he was not interviewed as part of the commissioner’s investigation.
A copy of the September 25 letter addressed to Mr Swann’s Stormont office is published in Mr Bain’s report. It told the MLA that Mr Bain’s investigation “has not uncovered any new information on which I feel the need to have the benefit of your views”.
But the letter added that if the MLA wanted to have a meeting he could contact Mr Bain’s secretary.
Mr Swann said that he “never received that piece of correspondence” and was “surprised” that Mr Bain had not spoken to him as part of the probe. The UUP said that there had been no follow-up letters or phone calls to the complainant to arrange a meeting.
When Mr Swann queried the issue with Mr Bain, he replied to say that neither he nor his personal secretary had “any particular recollection in relation to your letter”.
He added: “The normal practice is that such letters are sent via the Assembly’s internal mail. We have no reason to doubt that the normal practice was not followed on this occasion.”
On Saturday the News Letter revealed details of a recording which proves that Jimmy Spratt’s version of what he said to us is wrong.
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 that he was misquoted, let alone commence legal proceedings for libel.
A day after last June’s committee hearing, after listening to the official Assembly audio recording of the meeting, the News Letter contacted Mr Spratt.
A recording of that phone conversation proves that when it was put to Mr Spratt that the Assembly audio appeared to show that he had used the phrase “except the nutters”, Mr Spratt spoke up to say emphatically: “No, absolutely not, Sam. You print that if you want. I’ll be seeing you in court as well. OK?”
But Mr Bain found that Mr Spratt had never denied saying “except the nutters”.