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Top Barnet Tory tries to gag Times Series over £10,000 legal bill
A SENIOR Tory politician tried to gag the Times Series to stop it reporting a standards committee investigation into his conduct.
Barnet councillor and assembly member Brian Coleman, due to be sworn in as borough mayor on Tuesday, has been awarded up to £10,000 of taxpayers' money to cover his legal fees after a resident alleged he had breached the members’ code of conduct.
He rejected the law firm chosen by the council's insurers in favour of Beachcroft LLP – one of the largest and most expensive commercial law firms in the UK.
But when the story was reported yesterday, the cabinet member for community safety claimed falsely he was not the councillor involved and threatened this paper with criminal proceedings if his name was published.
Speaking to The Times Series, he said: “This investigation has absolutely nothing to do with me, nothing whatsoever, and if you say otherwise you will be hearing from my solicitor."
An email from his solicitors, Beachcroft, then demanded the story be removed from the website or they would "refer the matter to the appropriate authorities for action".
“This investigation has absolutely nothing to do with me, nothing whatsoever, and if you say otherwise you will be hearing from my solicitor.Brian Coleman
The council refused to confirm if the lawyers were acting for Mr Coleman in a private or public capacity.
Beachcroft said the Local Government Act 2000 prevented the disclosure of information obtained in a standards committee investigation.
Publishing Mr Coleman’s name would therefore a breach of confidentiality and could result in a two-year jail term or fine.
But The Times Series legal team disputed this claim, arguing that Mr Coleman's identity was not a confidential part of the officers' investigation.
They also pointed out that Mr Coleman's name had already been confirmed by council leader Mike Freer and was therefore a matter of public record.
Mr Freer approved the £10,000 indemnity for his cabinet colleague on Monday.
The payment will not be reviewed by the Overview and Scrutiny Committee because Mr Freer marked the matter "urgent", bypassing normal procedures.
The leader said he approved the decision because the company was London-based and had "considerable experience" of standards board issues in the capital.
He added: "Being able to see a local specialist could be more cost-effective than having to pay a Cardiff-based solicitor its hourly rate to travel to London.
"We took out the insurance on the understanding we would have access to local specialists.
"The urgency was because the standards board had already started their enquiries and Councillor Coleman was being asked for statements and to attend interviews before the issue with the insurers had been resolved."
The Barnet Standards Committee launched the investigation against Mr Coleman on March 24 following an allegation from a member of the public.
Mr Coleman has also attracted criticism as chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, who claimed in March that he was "too confrontational" and "lacked interest" in them.
The council said it could not reveal details of the allegation until a decision has been reached for legal reasons.