The RHI Inquiry has revealed major concerns at the top of the DUP over an investigation into special adviser Stephen Brimstone’s RHI arrangements – just weeks before Mr Brimstone quit his £92,000-a-year job advising Arlene Foster.
After the scandal emerged in early December 2016, Mrs Foster told the BBC that Mr Brimstone’s departure was not connected to RHI.
Her department then said that he had “resigned from his post to pursue other interests”, while it had earlier said that he had “left his post in the Executive Office to pursue opportunities in the private sector”.
In his evidence to the inquiry Mr Brimstone was asked to set out his career history – a standard question asked of most witnesses. He said that since leaving his government job he has been working as a self-employed IT consultant.
Because he chose to resign to become a private citizen, Mr Brimstone did not qualify for the huge golden handshakes which many of his colleagues received when they left or lost their Spad posts.
Mr Brimstone had long been a controversial DUP Spad. He was appointed by Mrs Foster to be one of her personal Spads in 2016, just three years after an Assembly inquiry reprimanded him for being “deliberately evasive” when facing questions about allegations he bullied a party colleague, telling her “the party comes first – you do what you’re told”. He rejected the allegations against him, but repeatedly told the committee he could not remember many aspects of the situation.
Yesterday the inquiry shone far more light on what the DUP knew about Mr Brimstone’s RHI situation by the time he resigned as Spad in November 2015 – a point at which the DUP knew that BBC Spotlight was investigating RHI.
John Robinson, who then was the Spad to economy minister Simon Hamilton, told the inquiry that he recalled Andrew McCormick, the then permanent secretary in his department having “briefed the minister and I about a letter to the NI Audit Office relating to Stephen Brimstone. As far as I can remember, this briefing took place after an investigation into the matter had been completed”.
Dr McCormick said in his written evidence that in October of that year the Audit Office sent him anonymous allegations which it had received about Mr Brimstone. He said it was then passed to Ofgem, who ran the scheme, and they told him that they had received similar allegations in June but had established that there was “evidence of a non-domestic function” at the site and therefore were content to continue payments.
Mr Robinson said that when he was told of the allegations about Mr Brimstone he believed that the investigation into Mr Brimstone was complete and he had gone to Mrs Foster’s key Spad Timothy Johnston.
Mr Robinson said that while he was discussing the issue with Mr Johnston in Stormont Castle he believes that Mr Brimstone walked into the room and he explained to the RHI claimant that there had been an investigation into him but it was now over.
Mr Robinson, who is now chief DUP spin doctor, said that Dr McCormick did not tell the DUP about the investigation until after it had been completed.
He said that he was unaware that there was an Audit Office investigation ongoing into Mr Brimstone at that point and that it would have been inappropriate to have talked to Mr Brimstone about that at that time.
Soon after, he said that he picked up through media contacts that there were rumours about “something happening around Stephen Brimstone”. At that stage, he said, “I may have communicated that through as well to the Castle [Arlene Foster’s office]”.
Inquiry barrister Donal Lunny revealed that in an email on October 24 Mr Johnston contacted fellow senior Spad Richard Bullick to say: “John is in possession of more material about SB and his RHI application.
“We are both of the view that this is not good. Now involves the auditor general and will not end well.”
When asked what had changed, Mr Robinson said: “By that stage, it had come to our attention that this was going to involve another investigation and I think the Public Accounts Committee may well have actually at that stage have been involved as well.
“So I had become aware of that information and I was keeping the Castle informed of it.”
He said that with hindsight “it may have been better if I’d just kept that information within the department” but he was trying to alert Mrs Foster’s office “to what was going on”.
He added: “Certainly the last thing I’d have wanted to do would have been to prejudice any sort of investigation.”
Mr Brimstone was subsequently the subject of allegations by the TUV leader Jim Allister, who used Assembly privilege to allege that Mr Brimstone had removed a new wood pellet boiler from his new house in order to install a similar boiler to make himself eligible for the non-domestic RHI scheme.
He said it was “the sort of rip-off that brings disrepute to all of the scheme” and “causes great injury to the bona fide users”.
Under the RHI scheme rules, it was possible to use a non-domestic boiler to heat a house in certain circumstances as an “ancillary” purpose.
Mr Brimstone declined to discuss the issue at the time and the DUP said that he was no longer employed by the party and it declined to answer questions on his behalf.