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Council bosses suspended after contract probe

Three senior Isle of Wight council officials were suspended last week after an investigation into a contract awarded unlawfully found that critical legal advice was ignored.
Deputy chief executive John Lawson, finance director Paul Wilkinson and regeneration and development director Derek Rowell allegedly ignored advice that consultant High-Point Rendel (HPR) was unlawfully hired to investigate the collapse of a section of the A3055 at Undercliff Drive in April 2001.After an internal procurement study uncovered the issue last year (NCE 23 November 2006) Isle of Wight Council commissioned an independent investigation by Southampton City Council monitoring officer Mark Heath into the contract. Heath's report, released last week, states that the suspended officers failed to act on a recommendation by solicitors Addelshaw Goddard in January 2005 that the contract be re-tendered. The firm said that the £1.5M contract had been awarded without competition in January 2001 and as such was a breach of a European Union procurement directive. It rejected claims made by Isle of Wight principal highway services engineer Nick Gallen that the award was made outside of usual procurement rules because the situation was an emergency.Following a review of Heath's report last Wednesday, the three officials were suspended pending a cross-party investigation by Isle of Wight council officials.None of the three suspended officers were in a senior position at the time of the contract and Rowell only joined the council from Scarborough Borough Council in 2004, where he was technical director of services. In 2004 HPR was slammed by the Audit Commission for unlawfully picking up £4.2M of work from Scarborough Borough Council between 1997 and 2000 (NCE 16/30 December 2004).EU procurement rules state that all public schemes worth over £157,477 must be put out to tender on the Official Journal of the European Union.The Audit Commission ruled out an investigation into the Isle of Wight case. The Commission's head of audit (south) Stephen Taylor said: 'I share the concerns of the council in relation to the Undercliff Drive contract. I am, however, satisfied with the rigour of the independent review by Southampton City Council and the steps being taken by Isle of Wight Council to regularise the position.'HPR declined to comment, while Lawson, Wilkinson and Rowell were unavailable for comment under the terms of their suspension.

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