Police on the trail

HeadLine: POLICE ON THE TRAIL

The Mirror, 18/10/2002, p6 & 7
by SHAUN MILNE and RICHARD GRAY

POLICE have been called in to investigate a series of “financial
irregularities” surrounding the constituency offices of First Minister
Jack McConnell.
Senior sources confirmed “a number” of allegations had been made
concerning Labour’s Motherwell and Wishaw office accounts.
It comes after the SNP demanded a thorough probe into the Labour party
purses.
They called for the Electoral Commission to scrutinise the party’s
accounting practices.
And the involvement of police will come as a major blow to McConnell,
who has tried hard to put a lid on the row.
When he first came to power, following the resignation of disgraced
Henry McLeish, McConnell vowed he would “do nothing” to bring the
Scottish Parliament into disrepute.
But the First Minister now runs that risk after failing to take
decisive action which could lay the scandal to rest and end the
political sniping.
His office has already admitted there were problems after it twice
failed to declare donations to the Labour party.
McConnell also faced accusations over paying a hotel bill for his
secretary, Christina Marshall, during a stay in Edinburgh, then
claiming it back on expenses.
Last night one source said: “Jack hopes to keep control of this – but
it’s now looking too late.
“Things are spiralling out of control because he has too many people
against him.
“His rivals know that mud sticks. And if they paint him into a corner,
he puts the whole credibility of the Parliament at risk by remaining –
so then he could go.
“That would be an absolute tragedy. The Henry McLeish affair was an
altogether different story but people are ganging up on Jack in the
very same way.
“He needs to box clever, not talk clever. The only thing he can do now
is come out, answer every question, and end this.
“It will not go away until he does just that.
“Then he can get about his business of running this country and let
those who would undermine him suffer the consequences.
“Labour cannot tolerate this again.”
Prime Minister Tony Blair has also found himself drawn in to the
mud-slinging match after former SNP leader Alex Salmond raised the
controversy in the Commons.
He claimed McConnell’s reputation was in “tatters” and called on Labour
to put it’s house in order.
Now Strathclyde Police are monitoring the row. And last night the force
confirmed they had been made aware of allegations surrounding the First
Minister’soffice, which he shares with stablemate Frank Roy MP.
But they were at pains to stress that no official criminal
investigation had yet been launched. In a prepared statement a police
spokesman said: “We can confirm that Strathclyde Police has been made
aware of an allegation of financial irregularities at the Scottish
Labour Party.
“We are awaiting further information in order to establish whether any
criminality is involved.”
Scots Labour chiefs had earlier admitted failing to declare two
separate party donations.
A Labour spokesman said funds raised at a dinner for the Motherwell and
Wishaw constituency party should have been declared to the Electoral
Commission in July.
The party spokesman admitted a “mistake” had been made. He said: “That
money from the Red Rose dinner should have been declared to the
Electoral Commission in the second-quarter of this year and it was not.
“But it will be declared as a third-quarter donation.
“It will be at the end of October when it should have been declared at
the end of July.”
The dinner was held at the Dalziel Golf and Country Club, near
Motherwell, in March.
It was attended by Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid, as well as
McConnell and Roy.
Party chiefs were already on the back foot after owning up to breaking
strict financial rules by not declaring contributions from the ISTC
steel union. They admitted the ISTC donations of £375 a quarter, had
not been declared.
The cash was paid into the local party’s controversial “political
development fund”, from which £200 was used in Mr McConnell’s
leadership bid following the death of Donald Dewar two years ago.
SNP leader John Swinney has called on Mr McConnell to hand the books
over to an independent auditor for a full investigation.
He said: “Jack McConnell’s reputation is now in tatters and he has to
act now if he is to preserve the integrity of his office.”
But McConnell said: “I think if anybody can watch back just 10 days
they will see that I have been raising these issues since last Monday.
“I think it’s very important in Scotland today that we deal with these
issues as they arise.”
The accounts row began last Wednesday and has raged on despite several
attempts by the First Minister to defuse it.
Earlier this week he said: “My job as First Minister is to uphold the
law in Scotland and I certainly intend to do that.
“And no organisation, no political party and no other organisation in
Scotland can be allowed to be above the law.”

THE STORY SO FAR

OCTOBER 10: Labour launches probe into claims of an £11,000 black hole
in McConnell’s Motherwell & Wishaw constituency
accounts. An auditor noticed regular sums were taken without proper
authority.

OCTOBER 11: It emerges that McConnell paid for a room in a five-star
Edinburgh hotel for his PA, Christina Marshall, and then claimed it
back on expenses. He claims he alerted Labour’s Scottish HQ to the
office accounts problem. He also says he wanted the police to
investigate.

OCTOBER 12: Sources within the local party reveal that McConnell was
questioned about the account BEFORE he asked for an inquiry. He claimed
he had no access to the account. But it turns out that Christina
Marshall was one of three people allowed to sign for withdrawals. She
did so, moreover, as Mr McConnell’s official representative.

OCTOBER 13: Bitter rival Hugh Mulholland fingered for whistle blowing.
McConnell claims there is a smear campaign against him.

OCTOBER 14: First suggestions police could be dragged into affair.
Labour admits donations of £1,500 per year to the account from the ISTC
trade union were not declared to the Electoral Commission.

OCTOBER 15: Revelation that the account in question is at the North
Lanarkshire Municipal Bank – a local authority-run savings bank which
has seven Labour councillors as trustees.

OCTOBER 16: McConnell vows to “put law before Labour” as he tries to
put lid on the scandal.

OCTOBER 17: Prime Minister Tony Blair dragged into affair after former
SNP leader Alex Salmond challenged him over McConnell-gate the previous
evening.

**

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Categories: Daily Mirror articles

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