THE Police Ombudsman’s office has spent nearly £94,000 defending employment cases taken against them by members of their own staff.
And in addition they’ve paid out £50,000 in damages to one former staff member.
In answer to Freedom of Information questions a spokesperson for the Police Ombudsman [PONI] told The Detail: “I have been advised that the costs associated with defending employment-related cases to date has been £93,839.54.
“In addition we have paid £50,000 damages in one case which was the subject of a confidentiality agreement. One former member of staff brought a claim of unfair dismissal to tribunal, which proved successful.”
Although the industrial tribunal case was settled in 2005, it is only now that the Police Ombudsman’s office has revealed that the case led to a £50,000 damages settlement.
The settlement came after a damning report by the tribunal into the Ombudsman’s office’s sacking of one of its own investigators – we’ll call him Brian; an event which sheds light on shortcomings within PONI from even its early years.
The report also contained a scathing criticism of failings by PONI investigators given the task of investigating the allegations against their colleague that led to his dismissal.HOW AN INVESTIGATOR BECAME THE QUARRY
In January 2002 a policewoman under investigation by the office made a complaint that one of the PONI investigators had confronted her in a bar in Portrush when she was with a group of friends.
She said the confrontation was on the same day she had been interviewed at Coleraine police station by two investigators from the Ombudsman’s office – one of whom she alleged was Brian.
She said the bar room confrontation had left her feeling humiliated and intimidated.
The policewoman said the confrontation was on January 16.
On April 18 her solicitor wrote to complain formally about what had happened on January 16 – and, after two calls to the Ombudsman’s office, to confirm the January 16 date as the day the policewoman had been interviewed in Coleraine police station.
The Police Ombudsman set in chain an investigation that took statements from the complainant and her friends. These statements were a crucial factor in the decision to dismiss Brian.
He appealed his sacking but the appeal, headed by the then chief executive Sam Pollock, ruled against him. So Brian took his case to an industrial tribunal and won.
But what’s most interesting is the tribunal’s damning criticism of the manner in which the Police Ombudsman’s investigators continued to pursue Brian after a critical element of the policewoman’s account was found to be untrue.THE SEQUENCE OF EVENTS
It’s January 16 2002.
Brian was asked by a colleague – we’ll call him Dave – in the Police Ombudsman’s office to sit in on an interview. It was not Brian’s case but as the other investigator was unavailable he agreed to help his colleague out. Regulations require two investigators to be present.
Later that evening Brian and Dave went to Kelly’s hotel and had a few drinks in the bar. They said the evening passed without incident.
However, the first hint of something untoward came just over a month later.
The female police officer under PONI investigation telephoned Dave and during the call she complained about the conduct of Brian at Kelly’s on the night of January 16 – the day she had been interviewed at Coleraine police station by Dave and Brian.
She said Brian had discussed the complaint against her in front of a group of her friends.
She registered a complaint but not formally.
Dave told Brian who denied the allegation. Dave reported the allegation to a senior investigating officer.
On April 9 Dave was told by a member of staff at the Ombudsman’s Office that the female officer had called asked for the date of her original interview with Dave in Coleraine. She was told January 16. Eight days later, the female officer’s solicitor rang seeking confirmation of the date of the interview: January 16.
The following day, April 18, the solicitor submitted a written complaint on behalf of the female officer concerning an incident at Kelly’s nightclub on January 16 2002.
Thus began the process of complaint and investigation although it was not until May 27 2002 that one of the Police Ombudsman’s investigators was appointed to head up the investigation into the complaint from the female officer.
PONI regarded the complaint as being about the gross misconduct of Brian in publicly confronting a serving PSNI officer under investigation by the Police Ombudsman.
An experienced police superintendent on secondment to the Ombudsman’s office was asked to investigate the gross misconduct complaint.
It was time to interview witnesses…although as the employment tribunal was later to adjudicate, this was one aspect of the entire investigation that was to be found sadly lacking…
Here’s why.ALLOWING NINE WITNESSES CHANGED THEIR STORY
Two serving police officers gave witness statements to the investigators from the Police Ombudsman’s office about the incident in the Portrush bar on January 16 – but they weren’t true.
The two men were actually in Kosovo on the night in question.
They were two of a total of nine witnesses – six of whom were serving PSNI officers including the female officer making the complaint – who were sure they had witnessed the confrontation with Brian and the female officer on a specific date: January 16.
These statements were crucial in the case the Police Ombudsman was building against Brian for gross misconduct.
They were deemed to be part of the ‘sufficient evidence’ produced by the investigation into Brian to allow him to face a disciplinary panel.
They had statements from nine witnesses that Brian was in the bar and had confronted the female officer. They had Brian’s admission that indeed he was in the bar. It’s just that he says there was no confrontation.
Nine days before the disciplinary hearing, Brian’s union representative wrote to PONI’s investigators to point out that two of the main witnesses against Brian had misled the investigators by telling what he termed “deliberate lies” about the night of January 16.
As the tribunal reported: “He [union representative] indicated that the two witnesses were in Kosovo, on secondment that night which not only discredited their statements, but also all those of **’s [the female officer] witnesses who had all claimed to be together on that night. The union asked for this to be immediately investigated and for all charges to be dropped.”
It was a moment when PONI investigators might have considered the credibility of the policewoman and her friends, including five other police officers. The tribunal notes that they missed this opportunity to examine in detail the significance of the change of date by so many witnesses…
One of Brian’s colleagues now base in Australia certainly felt it was an opportunity to consider the policewoman’s complaint in terms of credibility and motive.
PONI promised to investigate.
They went back to the female PSNI officer making the complaint explaining the query over the January 16 date. As the tribunal reported: “She did so by speaking on the telephone to her sister who had previously given a statement on her behalf.
“Her sister confirmed that she would not have been out on the evening of 16 January 2002 as she was on an early shift on 17 January 2002 whereas on 23 January 2002 she was off.”
So the female officer and her sister signed statements with the date changed from January 16 to January 23.
Soon all seven other witnesses changed their statements to claim the incident they described as happening on January 16 actually happened on January 23.
These events should have prompted PONI to return its focus to the woman police officer and her colleagues, to enquire into the truthfulness of their story.
But in spite of what the Ombudsman’s investigators described as this “unfortunate discrepancy” they went ahead with the disciplinary hearing which resulted in Brian being sacked.
He appealed. But the internal PONI appeal was rejected.
Brian finally got justice in 2005 when the tribunal report was published declaring he was unfairly dismissed.
The tribunal criticised the PONI investigation over the way it handled the change of date by all nine witnesses from January 16 to January 23. They were too willing to accept the truthfulness of the nine witnesses and to regard the change of date as acceptable.
The tribunal reported: “In the tribunal’s view, the change of date was not a matter for clarification but rather for investigation.”
It continued: “**’s [the female officer] and her witnesses had been at a function at the restaurant in the nightclub prior to the incident as described by them.
“No enquiries were ever made to ascertain the nature of the function or whether any relevant records of such a function existed and/or any details of any persons who had attended the said function or in whose name it had been booked.”
It was also claimed that one of the witnesses said he had paid by credit card but that the investigators didn’t investigate what credit card details were available.”
Failure to investigate the credibility of these nine witnesses meant that the investigators to just accept that Brian had committed the offences on the changed date – and it meant they did not believe his witnesses who said Brian was elsewhere on the night of January 23 and was not at the bar.
The tribunal also criticised the PONI investigation for failing to investigate the claim by Brian that one of the nine witnesses had a grudge against him or that comments had been made in a police station to a witness for Brian to the effect that the female officer would have the last laugh.
One of Brian’s former colleagues told the Detail that the way the investigation was conducted was indicative of the way the office at that time carried out its investigations.
“Brian’s case was typical of the way Police Ombudsman operated at the time,” Brian’s ex-colleague told The Detail. “They decide what result they want and they work towards that outcome.
“Put simply, they wanted rid of Brian because he did not toe the management line which was to assume guilt of any police officer facing allegations and go out and produce a report to that effect. Brian had been ordered on a couple of occasions to re-write reports to find officers guilty instead of concluding that their actions were justified.”THE TRIBUNAL FINDINGS AT A GLANCE
1 The PONI investigation just assumed the nine witnesses who changed the date of their statement were telling the truth and did not investigate the reasons for the change. No attempt was made to investigate the credibility of these witnesses.
2 The appeal was unfair because the PONI senior investigator who sacked Brian was allowed to attend the appeal and contribute to the proceedings set up and headed by PONI’s most senior management figure.
3 PONI failed to properly investigate Brian’s counter allegation that he was being set up because of a ‘grudge’ involving one of the police witnesses .
4 PONI also failed to investigate a statement from a reserve police officer that supported the ‘grudge’ claim by Brian and suggested a deliberate ploy to discredit Brian.
5 There was no effort made by the PONI investigation to check claims by the witnesses for the female officer that they had attended a function in the restaurant before going into the bar where the alleged confrontation took place.