THE head of a watchdog charged with policing NI Water has expressed strong personal support for the head of the water utility Laurence MacKenzie in a series of friendly e-mails.
Correspondence from the first three months of this year obtained by the News Letter reveals that Mr MacKenzie said he was "looking forward" to meeting the Consumer Council chief executive Antoinette McKeown, who told him that NI Water "needs your kind of leadership".
Responding to the leaked e-mails yesterday, the Consumer Council defended the correspondence, and said that its chief executive had been acting on behalf of the organisation.
A series of e-mails marked "private", but sent from Ms McKeown's Consumer Council e-mail address, show that on the morning of January 22, 2010, two days after Mr MacKenzie withdrew his resignation as NI Water chief executive, Ms McKeown wrote to him: "...good luck with a hard task in the knowledge that you've handled things correctly so far and no reason that shouldn't continue".
Mr MacKenzie responded: "Thanks for this, it means a lot at the minute! My biggest difficulty isn't sorting out the issues but the fact that my board is against me completely.
"They really do not understand that as AO (accounting officer) I had no option but to tell the department.
"I see we are in for a meeting on Tuesday at your place. I'm looking forward to that."
On the evening of February 17, Ms McKeown then wrote to Mr MacKenzie: "Hi Laurence, hope you are keeping well despite current issues.
"Relieved to read this week that your resignation offer was declined – not sure why you offered it as NIW badly needs your kind of leadership.
"Pl (sic) give me a call when review complete so that we can prepare for any media interest. Take care. A."
In response to that e-mail, the NI Water boss said of his resignation, which was retracted within days: "A – the issue was not being taken seriously – had to get their attention. I will call you once the (Independent Review Team's] review is complete.
"Probably best for us to meet up next week sometime. I would like to brief you 'face to face'.
"Thanks for your positive comments – much appreciated and valued."
In a later series of e-mails in March, following the sacking of all but one of NI Water's non-executive directors, Ms McKeown said to Mr MacKenzie in an e-mail with the subject "How are you?", that she was "... still clear you did the right thing and you do have support on a personal level".
Mr MacKenzie responded: "I'm fine and thanks for asking."
The Consumer Council defends chief's e-mails
IN a lengthy statement to the News Letter, the Consumer Council said that its chief executive had been acting in her capacity as head of the watchdog when she sent the e-mails.
The body, which is meeting regional development minister Conor Murphy next week to discuss the NI Water crisis, emphasised that issuing contracts without competitive tender – as happened at NI Water – jeopardised public money.
The statement said: "The e-mails from the chief executive (Antoinette McKeown) were in her capacity as head of the Consumer Council and aimed to show support for the whistle-blowing action taken by a new chief executive at NI Water – action that the CEO advised was being resisted by the board of NI Water, but which was in the best interests of consumers as it would help ensure their money was appropriately spent in future."
However, several of the sacked members of the NI Water board have denied that they were attempting to stop Mr MacKenzie addressing NI Water's problems and have accused the DRD of making them scapegoats for the company's failings.
The Consumer Council said that it was "acting in good faith and believed that both the action and the motivation of NI Water's chief executive were sound".
It also pointed out that in March, when the contracts problems were revealed, it had publicly called for a further investigation at senior management level "as we believed senior managers, as well as board members, must be held accountable".
It added that there was an agreement between NI Water and those charged with policing the publicly-owned company: DRD, the Consumer Council, the Utility Regulator and others.
"Signing up to this agreement commits each partner to a variety of things, including being open and honest with each other... and asking questions of each other directly, before commenting in the media.
"The Consumer Council has honoured this agreement but others have not."