County council company under investigation paid councillor's business £60,000, Freedom of Information request reveals

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A Northamptonshire County Council company at the centre of an external investigation paid a business co-owned by one of its senior councillor’s £60,000.

Limited company NEA Properties made the payment to Explore Communications which is co-directed by conservative Cllr Andre Gonzalez De Savage in May 2012 for ‘tourism promotion and business support work’.

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The long standing councillor was a director of both NEA Properties and Explore Communications and emails obtained by a Freedom of Information request by labour party member Liam Costello in 2014 show that Cllr Gonzalez requested an NCC accountant to make the payment to Explore Communications.

One email from Cllr Gonzalez sent to the accountant on May 25th said: “can you put the payment together for the £60k to Explore (for tourism promotion and business support) and we will then get acknowledgement via the agreement with NEP (Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership)”.

Cllr Gonzalez, who was an NCC cabinet member at the time, has not yet responded to approaches both by this newspaper and the BBC.

An external investigation was launched by the authority into NEA Properties this week (Sept 10) after a joint investigation by the Local Democracy Service and BBC revealed that the limited company had been using proceeds made from the sale of county council assets to fund lavish items including a corporate box at Northampton Saints rugby ground and a number of other hospitality events.

NEA Properties was set up by NCC 35 years ago in 1983 and had gained income by renting out former Nene college buildings it owned on Boughton Green Road to the University of Northampton. It sold these buildings to the university in 2014 for £880,000.

From 2007 until 2017 when the company was dissolved £1.6m was spent by the company on items listed as miscellaneous or projects.

£880,000 worth of spend was accounted for in an internal audit report by the council from May 2017 with £700,000 going back into NCC and the remainder spent by NEA properties.

Cllr Gonzalez and fellow conservative cabinet member Bill Parker were directors of NEA Properties from 2007 and 2010 respectively, until it was closed in 2017.

Cllr Parker has said he would not comment further until after the external investigation into NEA Properties was carried out.

The co-director of Explore Communications along with Cllr Gonzalez De Savage was Rob Purdie, who was also executive director NEP at the time of the payment.

Mr Purdie has also not responded to questions from this newspaper and the BBC.

The FOI disclosure obtained by Liam Costello revealed a handwritten note that shows the £60,000 payment to Explore Communications was only authorised after the payment had been made, at a NEA board meeting in September 2012. The note indicates that fellow director Cllr Bill Parker was not at the meeting, which means it was not in line with the company’s own written articles which said two directors had to be present.

An internal audit carried out into NEA Properties in May 2017 found that the company had minimal document and governance and that the ‘potential conflict’ between councillors performing dual roles as directors should be assessed.

None of the spend by NEA Properties appears to have gone before a council committee for approval.

Liam Costello told the BBC and local democracy reporting service he had made the FOI request in 2014 out of concerns about the lack of openness and transparency within NEA Properties Ltd and other NCC related companies.

He said: “There was only sketchy information publicly available as to how public money was being used”.

“The public will not have any confidence in Northamptonshire County Council until these matters are properly investigated and dealt with”.

Report by Local Democracy Reporter Sarah Ward and BBC news producer Matt Precey

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