One of the two civil servants overseeing the RHI scheme has recounted the moment when a controversial DUP special advisor rang him to inquire about the possibility of getting a boiler registered on the scheme.
Stuart Wightman, the head of the energy efficiency branch in Arlene Foster’s then Stormont department, told the public inquiry into the cash for ash scandal that Stephen Brimstone had phoned him about the issue.
Last week at the inquiry, Mrs Foster’s then Spad, Andrew Crawford, was asked about the incident because emails showed that in November 2014 he had asked officials for the phone number of Mr Wightman and then three days later he sent Mr Wightman an email asking the civil servant to phone him.
Three days after that, Dr Crawford sent Mr Wightman’s contact details to Mr Brimstone, who was then the Spad to social development minister Nelson McCausland and was at that point under investigation by the Assembly’s social development committee.
The committee was investigating DUP whistleblower Jenny Palmer’s allegation that he had tried to pressure her into voting for the controversial firm Red Sky to receive Housing Executive contracts, telling her “The party comes first – you do what you are told”.
The committee described the evidence of Mr Brimstone – who would go on to be promoted by the DUP and work as Spad to Mrs Foster – as “deliberately evasive in his answers to the point of obstructing the committee in carrying out its statutory function”, a finding with which DUP members of the committee disagreed.
Mrs Foster subsequently appointed Mr Brimstone as one of her own advisors.
Dr Crawford told the inquiry he “can’t remember the finer details” of why Mr Brimstone – who last year was revealed to have an RHI boiler of his own – was asking for the contact details of the responsible official.
Today Mr Wightman said he thought Mr Brimstone had phoned some time later, perhaps after February 2015: “I just can’t recall taking a telephone call from Stephen Brimstone around November 2014. I do recall taking a telephone call, I think much later, and it was about applying for the RHI.
“I didn’t know who he was when he rang me but the name was familiar and then subsequent to that I sort of put two and two together and realised that was who he was.”
Mr Brimstone did give his name, Mr Wightman said, but did not identify himself as a DUP Spad.
“The reason I remember the call is that the call was quite unusual in that it started off ‘I believe you’re the man to talk to about RHI’ and I think he referenced Andrew Crawford.
“At that stage, I just thought it was a general applicant so I would just have treated the telephone call like any other applicant wanting to find out how to apply for either scheme and I talked him through the process and referred him to the website and so forth.
“So there was nothing unusual, apart from the start of the telephone conversation. But the name Brimstone – afterwards, I sort of recognised ‘I know that name’ and it was subsequent to that I realised who he was, a special advisor”, adding that he remembered the Red Sky controversy.
He said he couldn’t remember other details of the conversation but it was focused on Mr Brimstone wanting to apply to the scheme.
He said “there was nothing in the call I was suspicious about” and they got “a lot of calls” from people considering applying to the scheme.
Mr Wightman also told the inquiry that he was unaware of lurid warnings about RHI abuse which were carried in national newspapers in 2014 – the year before the Northern Ireland scheme imploded.
One article in the Daily Mirror and two more in The Guardian set out detailed allegations about how the scheme was being abused and was not operating as an environmentally sound policy.