Conservative council group leader denies trying to influence standards panel verdict

The leader of Lewes District Council’s Conservative group is set to face allegations she attempted to influence the verdict of a standards panel hearing.

Tuesday, 16th November 2021, 4:20 pm
Conservative group leader at LDC Isabelle Linington

On Tuesday (November 23), a standards panel is set to consider allegations that Cllr Isabelle Linington breached the councillors’ code of conduct by attempting to influence the verdict of another standards panel hearing held in March.

In a complaint, Conservatve councillor for Peacehaven North  Phil Davies alleges Cllr Linington had called him the night before the hearing in an attempt to “coerce” him into finding the Liberal Democrat councillor Stephen Gauntlett guilty of failing to uphold the council’s code of conduct — a charge he was cleared of.

Cllr Davis said a similar call was made to his fellow Conservative councillor Roy Burman, who also sat on the panel.

While Cllr Burman has not made his own complaint, he told an independent investigator he had received such a call and that Cllr Linington had “put it to him forcefully that the outcome of the hearing should be a finding of breach and disqualification”.

Cllr Linington denies the allegations, but confirms the calls did take place, saying she was attempting to offer reassurance and procedural advice ahead of the meeting in light of speculation surrounding the case.

She says that her words have now been “deliberately exaggerated” as part of an attempt to oust her as group leader.  Both Cllr Davis and Cllr Burman deny their involvement is motivated by a desire for a change of leadership.

In a statement submitted to the panel, Cllr Linington said: “Because both Cllrs Davis and Burman may have been aware of this speculation, I wanted to clarify in the lightest possible way that, even were the breach to be substantiated, there would not necessarily be the political advantages that some supposed. I hoped that this removed any political baggage they might be carrying.

“My recollection is that having checked that Cllr Davis had received and read his papers and that Cllr Burman was now comfortable with procedures, I said that it was neither a nice job for them nor nice for Cllr Gauntlett to be subject to the panel hearing.

“I went on to say that I felt sorry for Cllr Gauntlett. The gist of what I then said summarised the situation that while it may be good if Cllr Gauntlett had indeed breached the code, the sanction of resignation was not something the panel could impose and other sanctions were unlikely to have much of an effect on the Alliance administration.”

She added: “There was absolutely no intent to influence the outcome one way or another and neither do I believe that the responses of Cllrs Davis and Burman at the time suggested that it had been taken that way.

“It appears to have suited their purposes months later to place a completely different interpretation on what was said.

“Indeed, when Cllr Davis said in the phone call that he would be weighing up the evidence, I said ‘yes, that is all you can do’. This is referenced in the Investigation Report and is hardly indicative of coercive, intimidating or influencing behaviour.

“I believe that viewed in its entirety, my comments were neither an attempt to improperly influence nor an attempt to confer an advantage.”

Cllr Linington goes on to say that the complaint against her is politically motivated due to Cllr Davis having a ‘negative attitude’ towards her leadership of the group. She also argues that had Cllr Davis felt he was being coerced he would not have waited until July before lodging the complaint.

While the final ruling will be made by the standards panel, the independent investigator’s report concluded that Cllr Linington had failed to comply with the code of conduct. 

The independent investigator said: “My investigation has established that Cllr Linington made a call to Cllr Davis which a reasonable person would consider to have been an attempt to improperly influence the outcome of a panel hearing.

“The conduct also breaches the code’s general obligations not to bring her office or authority into disrepute and not to attempt to use her position as a member to confer on or secure another an advantage.”

The investigator also said Cllr Linington had initially told her she said to Cllr Davis “it would be good if you found him guilty and then we could seek his resignation”, but that these words were said as a “joke” intended to set her group members at ease ahead of the hearing.

In a later response, Cllr Linington took issue with this presentation of her words, saying they  had been “shorn of the uncertainty and the qualifying comments expressed during the interview”.

She also sought to qualify her description of the comments as a joke, saying she was trying to convey that her comments were said “off-the-cuff and with no implied gravity”.

When approached by the LDRS, Cllr Linington said: “I am deeply disappointed by the unfounded claims of people I considered to be colleagues.

“My published statement sets out my position and I look forward to explaining this further to the panel. “

A final decision on whether or not Cllr Linington had acted in breach of the code of conduct will be made by the standards panel.