Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Questions about the conduct of Senator Terry Le Main

HOUSING Minister Terry Le Main was heavily criticised in the Royal Court yesterday for allegedly interfering in the prosecution of a property developer he had been friends with for years. His actions were described as 'inappropriate' and 'a source of considerable concern'. Senator Le Main sent a number of letters to the Attorney General calling for a charge against his longstanding friend Francis Venton to be dropped, the court was told. The charge, which was later admitted by 56-year-old Venton, related to a breach of the housing law. Venton, a former civil servant, admitted allowing an unqualified couple to live in an A-H qualified property in St Brelade owned by him between 15 April 2006 and 31 January 2008. He was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay costs of £2,500.(1)
Senator Le Sueur says Housing Minister, Senator Terry Le Main, will 'stand aside' while his alleged conduct is investigated. The Assistant Minister, Deputy Sean Power, will take over the role in the meantime. In an email to States members, the chief Minister said he was 'disturbed' by the allegations made at Jersey's Royal Court last week. It's alleged Senator Le Main tried to get charges against his friend, Frank Venton, dropped. Mr Venton was fined for breaching the housing law. During the hearing it was claimed that Mr Venton was a long-standing friend of Senator Le Main and that the Senator had written a number of letters to the Attorney General asking for the charges to be dropped. The Housing Minister refused to do an interview with Channel Television. However, in a statement, he denies having a long term friendship with Mr Venton and says he's written to the Crown Advocate, who made the claims, asking for evidence to that effect. "I am denying completely that I have or had a long term friendship with Mr Venton....like many thousands of Jersey people whom I know by face or name, I know Mr Venton as he used to work in the States Greffe and with the CI Lottery when I was President of Gambling Control....I have written to the Crown Advocate asking him to give me the evidence of his claims...of course media reporting is not always correct...so I await his response."(2)

Senator Le Main is not denying writing letters to the Attorney-General - these have been referred to in the Court Case, and undoubtedly do exist. What he is denying is the friendship with Mr Venton, which forms part of the Court accusation about his motivation. In other words, he has acting disinterestedly on behalf of Mr Venton as he would for any member of the public - " many thousands of Jersey people whom I know by face or name" (although in a scrutiny meeting he said he had to refer to notebooks because of his poor memory).

But does this make sense? How many cases like this has he written to the Attorney-General on behalf of a passing acquaintance? Why did the Counsel for the Defense argue that part of it be taken as a "character reference"? Is Terry Le Main accustomed to handing out character references for casual acquaintances?

Moreover, according to the report in the JEP, if it is accurate, he was arguing that there was no valid case to answer under the Housing Law? Not only would it seem improper for him to get involved in a legal matter concerning the Housing Law, this must raise questions as to whether he really understands the law for which he is Minister. Should the Minister not have sought advice before penning the letters? If so, which civil servants gave what appears to be wholly inaccurate advice? If he didn't seek advice, is he in the habit of doing this, and pontificating on matters with which he seems out of his depth without consulting at least Ian Gallichan, his Chief Officer?

I suspect we will never see the letters themselves, which would make plain beyond a shadow of a doubt exactly how close he appeared to be to Mr Venton. The action of someone with nothing to hide,  who has done nothing wrong, would be to make those letters public, which of course, Senator Le Main, as the author, has complete liberty to do.

Not making them public does not mean, of course, that anything underhand was going on, but it will fuel suspicions that the terms and phrases used were, at the least, highly ambiguous, and an act of political ineptitude from a Minister who is supposed to have at least some knowledge of Housing Law, or able to draw upon advisers regarding the same.

Jim Hacker: None of that need matter if it's all above-board. And I'm sure it is, if you say so, Duncan.
Duncan: There was nothing improper.
Jim Hacker: Good, then I'm free to talk about it, - bring it all out into the open.
Duncan: Hold on!
Duncan: Matters can be misinterpreted. People will misunderstand.
Jim Hacker: How true. 
[Yes, Minister, Party Games]
For the moment, however, we have yet another inquiry to look at "the full facts" of the case. Of course, the JEP is prone to inaccurate reporting, but Channel Television has also reported on it. The BBC, which has a much tighter policy of checking facts, has not yet done so. So Terry Le Sueur is right to not take everything completely at face value.

However, what we don't really want, but will probably get, is a "Yes Minister" kind of inquiry, with no public disclosure - "That's what enquiries are for. Setting up. They don't actually conduct them. Members may be appointed, but they'll never meet, and certainly never report".  It will be interesting to see if any report is made public, with detailed documents (such as the letters), so that the full picture can be seen. Let's hope it answers some of the questions mentioned above.

It will also be interesting to see how - compared to other acts of suspension of States Employees - how swiftly it is resolved when a States Member is concerned!

From: Terry Le Sueur
Sent: 30 May 2010 10:33
To: All States Members (including ex officio members)
Cc: Ian Gallichan; Bill Ogley
Subject: Housing

Dear Colleagues, I am sure that you will all be as disturbed as I was to read in the local press about the comments which have reportedly been made in a recent Royal Court case, comments which reflect badly on the current Housing Minister. I need to ascertain the full facts of this matter, and pending this I have spoken to Senator Le Main. He has agreed to stand aside as Housing Minister, delegating his daily responsibilities to his Assistant Minister whilst an enquiry takes place. I am making arrangements for this to be done as soon as possible, and will keep Members informed of any major developments. In the meantime any matters relating to Housing should be addressed to the Assistant Housing Minister, Deputy Sean Power, or myself. Yours sincerely, Terry Le Sueur
Chief Minister (3)
(1) http://www.thisisjersey.com/2010/05/29/minister-tried-to-get-friends-prosecution-dropped/
(2) http://www.channelonline.tv/channelonline/DisplayArticle.asp?ID=489208
(3) Email posted on internet forum Planet Jersey (and hence in public domain)


Nick Palmer said...

I don't know if it's still the case but I seem to remember that one of the bizarre aspects of life in Jersey was that it was not actually illegal to bribe people. Did that extend to receiving bribes too? Confirmation anybody?

TonyTheProf said...


The BBC has now reported on the story:

The senator was criticised in court for writing to the Attorney General to say a case against a developer was unfair.

The Royal Court was told that Senator Le Main is friends with the property developer, which the senator denies.

Senator Le Main said he has now written to the prosecution, the crown advocate, to ask him to produce evidence of the friendship with Frank Venton.

Mr Venton has been prosecuted for breaching housing law.