The chief executive of Wexford County Council put "unwarranted" pressure on a local radio station when he threatened to withdraw council advertising during a dispute over coverage, the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) has decided.
In a report published on Friday, it found that Tom Enright contravened the code of conduct for employees of local authorities and failed to maintain proper standards of integrity.
The findings arise from emails the chief executive sent to South East Radio on August 29th and 30th, 2019, during a row 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 he was taking legal advice.
The Sipo report is due to be considered at a monthly meeting of the council next week, to which Mr Enright is expected to make a submission.
Sipo found there had been three serious contraventions of the Local Government Act and and that by “letting his standards slip” Mr Enright had failed to ensure he did not bring the integrity of the council into disrepute.
The report followed a hearing in November, to which Mr Enright did not give evidence but to which his legal representative made submissions.
Sipo found that two emails from Mr Enright to South East Radio amounted to “putting pressure on the station to alter their broadcasting practices by threatening to withdraw funding from the station”.
Mr Enright inappropriately conflated the issues of his dispute with the station over its coverage of the council, and the council’s commercial position as the station’s primary advertiser.
He had misused the council’s position by “throwing around the weight” of the council’s purse, the report said.
In his evidence to the November hearing, the managing director of South East Radio, Eamon Buttle, said the station's commercial relationship with the council was "very important to our survival".
The emails from Mr Enright came against a dispute the chief executive was having with Karl Fitzpatrick, a Wexford businessman who presents a weekly business programme on the station. Mr Fitzpatrick made the complaint against Mr Enright that led to the Sipo investigation.
During March 2019, Mr Fitzpatrick made comments on air that were critical of the council. They were responded to by a statement from Mr Enright that was read out on air.
In June 2019, Mr Fitzpatrick informed Mr Enright that he intended making a complaint to the Ethics Registrar of Wexford County Council and that he had been advised that the chief executive had contravened the Ethics Act, the Standards Act, the Local Government Act, and the Code of Conduct for Employees of local authorities.
In an email to the station on August 29th, Mr Enright wrote: “Wexford County Council is currently reviewing our commercial relationship with you. We have spent over €160K with SE Radio in the past 18 months.
“A lot of money to a radio station that facilitates inaccurate and damaging commentary on positive initiatives that the council and others are trying to achieve in order to make Wexford a better place.”
The station responded and included a refutation of the criticisms of the station. Mr Enright returned to the topic in an email the following day.
Having said he welcomed “proper, constructive criticism” of the council, Mr Enright wrote: “It is with regret that we must cease our commercial relationship with you.”
While the council did not cease advertising with the station, Mr Buttle told the November hearing that the amount of advertising thereafter was not as great as he would have expected.
The council had spent about €63,000 on advertising in 2019, but this had dropped to €46,000 in 2020, although he felt the onset of the pandemic should have led to an increase in council advertising.
Counsel for Mr Enright told the November hearing his client had at all times sought to protect the public interest and, rather than seeking to control the station, had been seeking to ensure the station was fair in its coverage.
However, the commission decided that while Mr Enright had a responsibility to defend the council, and a right to defend his own reputation, “a person in his position must react in a proportionate and level-headed manner”.
“There is no doubting Mr Enright’s passion and drive for Wexford. He has clearly worked hard to get to his senior position and expended considerable time and effort, with evident success, for the betterment of the county,” Sipo said.
“However, it is incumbent on someone in his position to maintain appropriate standards when his work record is challenged. On this occasion, the commission considers that Mr Enright’s conduct fell below the required standard, bringing the position of chief executive and Wexford County Council into disrepute,” it said.
“The emails amounted to an inappropriate conflation of the issues of, on the one hand, the coverage of the council on South East Radio and Mr Enright’s dispute with Mr Fitzpatrick and, on the other hand, the council’s commercial relationship with the station,” it went on.
In this way, Mr Enright misused the council’s position as the station’s primary advertiser, in effect “throwing around the weight” of the council’s purse, the standards authority found.
Mr Enright had been reckless in sending the emails and they were a serious contravention of the statutory provision.
The “inappropriately emotive and threatening tone” of the emails and the way they conflated separate matters had put “unwarranted” pressure on the station to alter its broadcasting practices.
The commission has now forwarded its report to the cathaoirleach of Wexford County Council, and to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
The Act stipulates that a report shall be considered by the elected council, which “shall decide on such action to be taken as may be considered appropriate in all the circumstances”.
The legislation provides that the members of a local authority may suspend, or remove, a chief executive who is the subject of a critical Sipo report. (No such power exists in relation to elected members.)