The DUP’s Jim Wells has come out swinging in defence of former Alliance leader David Ford, after he was hit with a hefty fine for breaking rules on MLAs’ office signage.
Mr Ford, who retired as an MLA in June, is facing a bill for thousands of pounds after he displayed his phone number and email address on his South Antrim constituency office.
Rules on MLA office signs are set by the Independent Financial Review Panel, which says only a limited amount of information can be displayed, including a name, title, party and NI Assembly logo.
Mr Ford has insisted he has done nothing wrong and is threatening to take the Assembly Commission – which enforces the rules – to court.
The former justice minister declined to say how much money he had been ordered to repay. The BBC noted the average annual rent and rates allowance for MLAs is around £8,500.
Mr Wells, who sits on the commission, branded the rule “ridiculous and bizarre”.
He told the News Letter: “The punishment does not fit the crime. A £20 fine would have sufficed, or just tell him to cover up the sign or remove it.
“But to impose a fine of almost £10,000 is just absurd.”
Mr Wells said he believed the panel which set the rules had made an “oversight” by not allowing contact details to be displayed on signage.
He added: “This was a mistake and the panel is now trying to defend the indefensible.”
But Alan McQuillan, who helped draw up the rules as a former member of the now defunct panel, rejected Mr Wells’ assertion.
“To suggest this was a mistake on our part is nonsense,” he told the News Letter.
“The rules were written extremely tightly as we wanted people to know that if they misused their office, they were not entitled to rent or rates.
“If people want to contact their MLA, they don’t go down to their office and look for a phone number on a sign. They either pick up the phone book or go online to find it.”
A spokesperson for the Assembly said it is not responsible for the rules in the panel’s determination, but is “required by law to apply it until such time as it is changed by a future panel”.