Arlene Foster’s long-standing advisor has publicly apologised for sending a confidential government document about the RHI scheme to a relative.
During questions at the public inquiry into the ‘cash for ash’ scandal, Andrew Crawford yesterday insisted his action – one of three times when he sent confidential RHI material to relatives – had not given his poultry farmer cousin an advantage.
His cousin, Richard Crawford, subsequently installed six RHI boilers before cost controls were eventually implemented in November 2015 after the scheme had run out of control.
The 45-page consultation document – which did not become public for another 16 days – contained the comment that “a method of cost control is to be introduced that will ensure budgets are not overspent” and stated that there was “a finite budget for new installations and these budget limits cannot be breached”.
On a Saturday afternoon in July 2013 – just over eight months into the scheme – Dr Crawford forwarded a confidential ministerial submission containing the consultation document to his cousin.
Dr Crawford was pressed in minute detail over how and why he had sent the material to his cousin – particularly because he had done so before it was even cleared by himself or Mrs Foster.
The inquiry wrote to Dr Crawford last year to ask him to state any times where anyone involved in the RHI scheme – including himself – had broken rules “including, but not limited to, by means of making premature or unauthorised disclosures” or “acted in ... any way where they had a real or perceived conflict of interest”. Dr Crawford responded to that question by saying: “I am not aware of any instances.”
Yesterday barrister Joseph Aiken for the inquiry said that the inquiry had then obtained a witness statement from Dr Crawford’s cousin in which he disclosed an email from Dr Crawford on July 6 2013 which contained an attached Microsoft Word document entitled “Draft RHI phase 2 consultation – submission to minister”.
When asked why he had not initially disclosed to the inquiry the existence of the communication with his cousin, Dr Crawford said: “Because when I done [sic] my first statement to the inquiry, in it I said that I didn’t have access to my government account and this email came from my government account and I had no recollection of sending this email until I seen [sic] it coming back through in terms of the documentation that was produced from the inquiry.”
Setting out what he believed had happened, he said that his cousin lived beside Clogher livestock market and from looking at other documentation he believed that he (Dr Crawford) had been selling cattle for his father on the day when he sent the email to his cousin, who he believes he probably met before discussing his new poultry house “and I suspect the debate came up about why he didn’t put in a biomass boiler into that house and why he powered it with gas instead of biomass when the scheme was up and going and bearing in mind at this time the scheme was undersubscribed and we were encouraging more people into the scheme”.
Dr Crawford said “I don’t recall a detailed discussion on it” but that he expects that his cousin asked him if he had any information on the scheme “and hence I sent him through the consultation document”.
He went on: “I shouldn’t have sent it through to him. I want to apologise for it. It was wrong. It was wrong on my behalf. I put that into my second statement but I want to put that on the record here today.”
There had been a delay in clearing the submission and Dr Crawford had previously told the inquiry that he could not recall what had stopped the minister and himself from approving the document before it was sent to his cousin.
However, Dr Crawford said firmly that “the document was not sent to Richard for comments in relation to what was in that consultation document, nor was it sent to him looking for proposed changes to that consultation document”.
He said that the final consultation document did not contain changes which could have advantaged his cousin.
Dr Crawford said that his cousin had installed three biomass boilers 12 months after receiving the document “and in terms of the advantage that Richard would receive in receiving this document, he was only receiving the document a number of weeks before the document was in the public domain so it’s not a matter that he had a number of weeks to get into the scheme or not get into it”.
At one point in the questioning, Mr Aiken said “I’m not for a moment suggesting you’re Edward Snowden [who leaked US intelligence data]”, to which Dr Crawford laughed and replied: “But others may think I am.”
Mr Aiken asked him: “Were you in the habit – and I want you to be very careful and think through what I’m asking you before you answer it – of sending material that you received in the course of your role as special advisor to people outside, whether that be family, friends, anyone else, but outside of the government service?”
Dr Crawford said: “No, I wasn’t. However, in the nature of my role ... I would have had discussions with various interest groups, in particular policy areas, so I’m not saying that in a particular subject area that I wouldn’t be speaking to various lobby groups ... was I in the habit of leaking consultation documents? No, I wasn’t ... I suspect because it was my cousin my guard was down.”
Pressed further on that, he said he had “no recollection of sending any other policy documents out”.
When asked why he did not simply refer his cousin to a website for information, he said: “In hindsight, look there’s all sorts of questions I’ve asked. I’ve kicked myself why I’ve sent this out – refer them to the website, refer them to officials; there’s all sorts of things I could have done.
“My Blackberry [phone] was there; I was aware of this email on it. To be frank with you, I think I was probably lazy in doing that, but it would have been a very easy thing to do.”
Dr Crawford accepted that at the time he knew that what he was sending was a confidential government document but that he “couldn’t answer why my conscience didn’t stop me doing it; I just can’t answer that here today”.
When asked whether he had ever discussed the issue since – especially after the huge public scandal around the scheme – with his cousin, Dr Crawford said that he did not believe that the subject had been raised.
He said that he did not believe that he had told Mrs Foster about what he had done in 2013 but added: “I can’t recall back to that time.”
Mr Aiken pressed the witness on whether – in light of his statement that he did not remember forwarding the document until it was brought to his attention – he had done so on other occasions but the inquiry had not ncovered it.
Dr Crawford said: “I do not have any recollection; I do not believe that I sent any other communication out, but...”
Mr Aiken said: “But, you understand, you didn’t remember any of these?”
Dr Crawford replied: “Yes, bu t... I don’t want to say that it was widespread practice sending out documents; it was not widespread practice sending out documents.”
He also said he did not recall any discussion with other DUP Spads to the effect that “it’s OK to do this sort of thing”.