DUP leader Arlene Foster’s former special adviser failed to step away from discussions about a botched energy scheme despite having applied to participate in it, an inquiry has heard.
Stephen Brimstone installed a biomass boiler in a shed beside his home and applied for the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) in 2015. He then failed to step away from high level discussions or to ask not to be sent emails about the scheme as it became clear costs were spiralling.
When asked to explain, Mr Brimstone said he was trying to be helpful to other DUP special advisers.
The RHI Inquiry is examining how the scheme, which has become known as 'cash for ash', ended up causing a crisis which contributed to the collapse of powersharing at Stormont. It has been claimed that the scheme could result in taxpayers facing an overspend running to hundreds of millions of pounds.
There have been allegations that the scheme’s over generous fuel subsidies led to people heating empty sheds for financial gain before cost control measures were introduced.
The inquiry heard on Wednesday that Mr Brimstone’s boiler was used for an average of just four hours a day.
Mr Brimstone had been a DUP special adviser in various departments since 2008 and when Ms Foster became first minister in January 2016, she asked him to become one of her advisers. He told the inquiry that he told her verbally at that point that he had applied to the RHI scheme.
Mr Brimstone said there had been discussion about the scheme and he felt he should tell her he had applied. “She just thanked me for telling her... and that was the end of the matter,” he told the inquiry.
He told the inquiry that Ms Foster’s most senior adviser Timothy Johnston also knew he had applied, and had not told him to stay out of discussions about RHI.
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said that not stepping back raised a question about how genuine his declaration to Ms Foster had been.
“You tell the first minister you have an interest and having done that, you then continue to involved, and that can play back on the genuineness of your declaration, you are just doing it for form... you may shake your head and so on, but that is the sort of perspective that someone might adopt,” Sir Patrick said.
Mr Brimstone responded: “I appreciate that chair, I think that’s why I didn’t want to equivocate yesterday when it first came up, when I said I should have stepped back from every instance that happened, and yes every instance that happened after another, makes the thing even worse.”
He agreed with Sir Patrick the “perception of it couldn’t be worse”.
Mr Brimstone said he should have stepped away from any discussion about RHI. When asked to explain why he did not, he responded: “I was trying to be helpful.”
When asked did he think it was a conflict of interest at the time, Mr Brimstone said: “I don’t believe I did.”
Invited to explain further, he told the inquiry: “I have asked myself that question so many times...I should have stepped back completely,” he added. - PA