Monday, 4 July 2011

Eloquence Of Silence

Ministers are said to be closely monitoring allegations of inappropriate payments made by West Ham to a director of the Olympic Park Legacy Company, after the bitter public row over the future of the Olympic Stadium escalated yesterday. The Government is alarmed by revelations, first exposed on Friday, that an OPLC director was paid £20,000 while moonlighting as a consultant for West Ham, and has sought reassurances about the OPLC’s processes and the decision to award the Olympic Stadium to West Ham.

Writing in today's Telegraph, Paul Kelso states the revelation will ramp up the pressure on ministers and the OPLC to reconsider the decision to award the stadium to West Ham, which is already facing legal challenge from defeated bidder Tottenham. West Ham issued an angry statement yesterday denying that the £20,000 "consultancy" payment made to Dionne Knight, the OPLC’s director of corporate services, was improper and revealing they were opening legal proceedings against Tottenham and the Sunday Times following publication of details of the payments yesterday. The strongly-worded statement accuses Tottenham of behaving "illegally" and is an indication of how serious the dispute between the two rival clubs over the £500million stadium has become.

The couple at the centre of the row, Knight, at the OPLC, and her partner, Ian Tompkins, the West Ham Olympic project director who helped the east London club win the bid, have now been suspended. West Ham insist they had taken their director’s word that his girlfriend had received approval from her employers to be hired as a paid consultant by them. In fact, the OPLC learnt about the arrangement only last Thursday when the woman was contacted by the newspaper.

Ms Knight, 34, from Surrey, has been an £84,000-a-year director of corporate services at the OPLC since May last year. She declared her relationship with Ian Tompkins, 53, when she took on the role. The sensitivity of the relationship was such that the OPLC decided that the stadium bid process must be handled from its external lawyers’ offices in the City of London. The couple had previously worked together at Newham council, which is responsible for the Games site and West Ham’s ground at Upton Park. Tompkins, who served as the council’s director of communications, joined West Ham in 2008 and was given the job of handling the bid for the Olympic stadium. He was responsible for appointing Knight, and is said to have assured Karren Brady, West Ham’s vice-chairman, that she had permission from her employers. The Legacy Stadium Partnership was aware of their relationship.

On Friday, OPLC said that it was conducting a review of its procedures but that it was confident that its stadium tender process had not been compromised by Knight’s work for West Ham. Knight had declared her relationship with Tompkins to the OPLC when she joined the company but had not revealed that she was moonlighting for West Ham. The legacy company is expected to announce tomorrow which firm will conduct the independent audit.

Spurs will attend a high court hearing this month in a bid to force a judicial review of the bidding process, which they claim was flawed, biased and in breach of European law. On Friday they were granted permission to seek full disclosure of a deal between West Ham and Newham Council, which has agreed to provide a £40  million loan to finance the stadium conversion. The London borough, a host for the Olympics, is also embroiled in the controversy because Knight was formally hired by a partnership half-owned by the council and West Ham. A spokesman for the council reiterated: "Both West Ham and Newham had been assured that the procurement exercise had been fully authorised. The work that was procured by West Ham was of significant quantity. Neither party has ever sought or received any advantageous information in regard to the stadium bid. Both West Ham and the OPLC will now conduct detailed, robust investigations and we will co-operate fully with both."

Newham mayor Sir Robin Wales has since stressed the importance of putting plans in motion for the Olympic Stadium despite the protracted row over its ownership. He does not believe the controversy should be allowed to delay plans for the venue. The east London Olympic borough won a joint bid with West Ham to use the stadium after the Games. The OPLC board voted 14-0 in February to back this bid, ahead of Tottenham, as first choice to move into the stadium. Wales, whose board authorised the £40m loan to the joint venture company that will operate the stadium, declared: "The sooner we can get on with it the better for our country. Anything that delays it is not good for our country. It is a seriously hugely popular bid. Everybody thought it was the best - let's just get on with it. We are very keen to get started. Our bid is way the best. It works in every possible way. We will retain the stadium so we can use it nationally and regionally. Our community will benefit enormously from it. Any rational person will say 'it is a no-brainer, this is by far the best bid - let's get on with it'. Things will happen as they happen. It is the right bid for the stadium and we will work as quickly as we can to open it."

Also reacting today, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, insisted the revelations will not scupper the club's move into the Olympic Stadium. "There is no reason why there should be any deviation. The woman concerned made her relationship known to the OPLC and was immediately excluded from having anything to do with the bid process," said Johnson, who rubber-stamped the OPLC's decision to choose West Ham's joint bid with Newham council over the rival one from Tottenham Hotspur. "Obviously they took steps, quite rightly, to exclude her of any involvement with the bid process and it now transpires there was a financial relationship – that is a matter that is currently under investigation. I have no reason to believe that this in any way will blow the decision off course. Let's face it, two years ago no-one would have said we would have two top London clubs fighting it out for the right to use the Olympic stadium. It is a great tribute to everybody involved in the marketing of the Olympic Park that we have got a situation where we have so much interest in the stadium. Before then people were talking about mothballed white elephants."

West Ham said on Sunday it would sue the Sunday Times over the claim that the payments were made in secret and take legal action against Spurs over its use of a firm of private detectives. The club will report Tottenham to the police for allegedly accessing bank accounts and tapping phones as the dispute over the Olympic Stadium gets ever more spiteful. With the exception of Knight and Tompkins, Spurs remain the only major player involved yet to give a public response. They have declined to respond to the allegations that they had employed private investigators, although sources claimed the club had not spoken to The Sunday Times. In the words of Emily Dickinson, saying nothing...sometimes says the most.

When pressed, Tottenham would state only: "We are currently in a legal process and cannot comment on the matter." Given the new and despicable phone hacking revelations emerging today, and the highly sensitive nature of such activities in the current climate, that is probably a sound approach. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the paper said: "The Sunday Times stands by its story and will rigorously defend any action taken against us." It just might have to.

1 comment:

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