A UUP MLA has said that he got no financial benefit from a bouncy castle enterprise with which he is involved after an audit report raised a series of concerns around how public money went to the outfit.
An audit report by Antrim and Newtownabbey Council, a copy of which has been seen by the News Letter, found that Adrian Cochrane-Watson failed to declare that he is sits on the committee of a bouncy castle social enterprise which is one of the major beneficiaries of the council’s bonfire scheme.
Prior to becoming an MLA, Mr Cochrane-Watson was a member of the old Antrim Borough Council’s bonfire committee which last year gave grants of almost £30,000 to events around Eleventh bonfires.
The report gave the council bonfire scheme a red rating of ‘unacceptable’, the worst category available to the auditors. They said that “urgent action” is now needed to make it acceptable.
Over the last four years more than £25,000 was spent on bouncy castle hire. By contrast, just over £6,000 went on “traditional music”.
The report states that the council agreed an “informal” scheme whereby quotes could be given to the council before an invoice had been received, with the council paying some of the money – to a maximum of £1,500 – in advance. The auditors noted that “many of them had been provided by one supplier (‘Supplier A’)”.
Supplier A is Bouncy King NI and in each case its quotation claimed that the work would cost £1,600. The council paid in advance a sum of £1,500. In the event, each time the final bill from Bouncy King NI was just £750.
The auditors found that “documents were missing from the files to support the early payments”. Criticising the council’s procedures, the auditors said that the lack of detailed documentation meant “we are therefore unable to provide assurance that all payments are bona fide...There is an increased risk of fraud.”
Mr Cochrane-Watson said that the discrepancy in quotations and final invoices was simply because the groups were all quoted for a more substantial package but decided to downgrade to a cheaper alternative.
When asked why each one had, independently of each other, all opted for a much smaller package costing exactly the same amount, he said: “I didn’t take to do with it, but they probably came and said...give us a package...The annoying thing for me is that I’m not hands-on...they all do the same; they never at any time got any excess funding than what they actually delivered.”
The South Antrim MLA, whose daughter has been employed by the business and whose mobile number is listed on its website as a point of contact. said there were “no over-payments”.
Mr Cochrane-Watson made a written declaration of interest in Bouncy King NI to the council in one year – 2014-2015 – but did not make any verbal declaration of interest at the meetings where bonfire funding was approved.
He insisted that the committee just divided the budget between the various groups, rather than agreeing to individual invoices, something which it left to council officials.
Mr Cochrane-Watson added: “There’s no cheques that were made out to Adrian Cochrane-Watson, I can assure you. I have gained absolutely zero income from this ...I helped them, I gave them direction, I gave them governance – maybe not good enough governance by the sound of it, but I gave them governance...occasionally they get me out driving a van if they’re stuck.”
He said that Bouncy King had never been raised at the committee so there was in his view no reason to declare an interest.
Mr Cochrane-Watson said that he spoke to the council chief executive, Jacqui Dixon, recently and she told him “Adrian, you did absolutely...don’t lose any sleep over this’.
The report also found that more than £8,000 was approved for buying pallets, petrol and diesel for fires, and that too much reliance was placed on one council employee to approve the payments.
Mr Cochrane-Watson said there had been “a hell of a good outcome...from 50,000 tyres being put on bonfires...anti-social behaviour...into something which is a wee bit rough round the edges, but it’s something you can grow. When did you ever think that people like Ballycraigy would be round the table, with loyalist feuds and everything, and the biggest feud they’ve had lately has been who’s got the biggest bonfire? Who’s got the biggest bouncy castle?
“I’m not joking...it used to be [they] were arguing over who was going to be selling the biggest [quantity of] cocaine here – I’m dramatising it a wee bit...”
One of the ‘testimonials’ on the Bouncy King NI wesbite is from “Adrian Watson” who is described as a “local councillor”, rather than one of the senior figures in the business.
It quotes Mr Watson praising his own outfit, saying: “I had a great time working alongside this community based group. They have a great range of services available and are both reliable and professional.”
• MLA drops threat to sue councillors for libel
UUP MLA Adrian Cochrane-Watson has backed down over a threat to sue two councillors over questions they raised at a meeting of Antrim and Newtownabbey council about his role in the bonfire funding controversy .
Alliance’s Tom Campbell and the DUP’s Phillip Brett raised the issue at the council last month.
Libel actions against councillors are rare because their commnets in the council chamber are covered by qualified privilige, making the bar for libel much higher than in normal circumstances.
Yesterday Mr Campbell, a solicitor, told the Antrim Guardian that he would “strenuously defend” any action, while Mr Brett told the News Letter he would be “resisiting any attempt to silence us on the issue”.
When asked last night whether he is pressing ahead with his threat, Mr Cochrane-Watson said: “No, I’ve asked them that I would consider this matter to be closed. They’ve had their fun and games that I took exception to...my solicitor made that clear to them.”