The chief executive of Wexford County Council exerted “undue” pressure on a local radio station when he threatened to remove the council’s advertising during a coverage dispute, the Standards Commission ruled in the civil service (Sipo).
In a report released on Friday, he found that Tom Enright had violated the code of conduct for employees of local authorities and failed to uphold appropriate standards of integrity.
The findings stem from emails the chief executive sent to South East Radio on August 29 and 30, 2019, during an argument over the station’s coverage of the council.
In a statement issued in response to the report, Mr Enright said he believed the findings were “flawed and disproportionate” and that he was taking legal advice.
The Sipo report is due for consideration at a monthly board meeting next week, to which Mr. Enright is expected to make a submission.
Sipo found that there had been three serious breaches of the Local Government Act and that in “letting his standards slip” Mr. Enright had failed to ensure that integrity was not brought into disrepute. advice.
The report follows a hearing in November, to which Mr. Enright did not testify but to which his legal representative made representations.
Sipo found that two emails from Mr. Enright to South East Radio amounted to “pressuring the station to change its broadcasting practices by threatening to withdraw funding from the station.”
Mr Enright inappropriately confused the issues of his dispute with the station over its coverage of the board and the board’s commercial position as the station’s primary advertiser.
He had abused the council’s position by “throwing the weight” of the council’s stock market, according to the report.
In testimony at the November hearing, South East Radio chief executive Eamon Buttle said the station’s business relationship with the board was “very important to our survival.”
Mr Enright’s emails followed a dispute between the managing director and Karl Fitzpatrick, a Wexford businessman who hosts a weekly business show at the station. Mr. Fitzpatrick filed a complaint against Mr. Enright which led to the Sipo investigation.
In March 2019, Mr. Fitzpatrick made on-air comments critical of the board. They were answered with a statement from Mr. Enright which was read over the air.
In June 2019, Mr. Fitzpatrick informed Mr. Enright that he intended to file a complaint with the Wexford County Council Ethics Registrar and that he had been informed that the CEO had violated the Ethics Law, Standards Law, Local Government Law and Code of Conduct Law for Employees of Local Authorities.
In an email to the station on August 29, Mr Enright wrote: “Wexford County Council is currently reviewing our business relationship with you. We have spent over € 160,000 with SE Radio in the past 18 months.
“Lots of money for a radio station that facilitates inaccurate and damaging commentary on the positive initiatives the council and others are trying to achieve in order to make Wexford a better place.”
The station responded and included a rebuttal of the station’s critics. Mr. Enright returned to the subject in an email the next day.
After saying he welcomed the board’s “appropriate and constructive criticism”, Mr Enright wrote: “It is with regret that we must end our business relationship with you.”
While the board has not stopped advertising with the station, Mr. Buttle said during the November hearing that the amount of advertising afterwards was not as significant as it was. would have imagined.
The council spent around € 63,000 on advertising in 2019, but that amount had fallen to € 46,000 by 2020, although it felt that the onset of the pandemic should have resulted in an increase in advertising for the council.
Mr Enright’s attorney said at the November hearing that his client had always sought to protect the public interest and, rather than seeking to control the station, had sought to ensure that the station was fair in its cover.
However, the commission ruled that if Mr. Enright had the responsibility to defend the council and the right to defend his own reputation, “a person in his position must respond in a proportionate and balanced manner.”
“There is no doubt about Mr. Enright’s passion and drive for Wexford. He clearly worked hard to get into his leadership role and devoted a lot of time and effort, with obvious success, to the betterment of the county, ”said Sipo.
“However, it is up to someone in their position to maintain appropriate standards when their work record is challenged. On this occasion, the committee considers that Mr Enright’s conduct fell below the required standard, bringing into disrepute the post of Chief Executive Officer and Wexford County Council, ”he said.
“The emails amounted to an inappropriate confusion of the issues, on the one hand, of the council’s coverage on South East Radio and Mr. Enright’s dispute with Mr. Fitzpatrick and, on the other, of the council’s business relationship. with the station “, it continued.
In this way, Mr. Enright abused the council’s position as the station’s primary advertiser, “throwing the weight” of the council’s stock market, the standards authority found.
Mr. Enright had been reckless in sending the emails and they were a serious violation of the legal requirement.
The “unduly emotional and threatening tone” of the emails and the way they lumped together distinct topics had put “undue” pressure on the station to change its broadcasting practices.
The commission has now forwarded its report to the cathaoirleach of Wexford County Council and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
The law states that a report must be considered by the elected council, which “decides what action to take which may be deemed appropriate under any circumstances”.
The legislation provides that the members of a local authority can suspend or dismiss a general manager who is the subject of a critical report by Sipo. (There is no such power with respect to elected members.)