Complaints “not upheld” against Basil McCrea who “exercised poor judgement”

Last night’s interview between Mark Carruthers and Basil McCrea on The View made uncomfortable viewing. It should have been the Lagan Valley MLA’s opportunity to quickly draw a line under the last two years of allegations, accept that he could be more patient with staff and pivot the narrative back onto the electoral hopes for himself and his party.

Instead the pre-recorded interview turned into a sustained game of cat and mouse that left the NI21 leader – and sole candidate at the Assembly election – standing on the back foot.

committee-complaint-reportThe report on complaints against Basil McCrea published by NI Assembly’s Committee on Standards and Privileges was leaked by someone to was trailed in the local press over the last couple of days. A redacted copy along with links to appendices detailing Douglas Bain’s interviews, investigation and the original allegations were published online on Thursday.

None of the twelve complaints were upheld.

Although with regard to one complaint, the committee did express their belief “that the manner in which Mr McCrea occasionally treated his staff fell short of the standard it would encourage”.

Who doctored the photographs? That’s one question that went unasked in last night’s studio interview. Complaint 5 centred around the allegation that “during a visit to Canada in 2013 Mr McCrea took voyeuristic photographs of Miss Jacquelyn Neglia, which he stored on his office computer”.

The Commissioner determined that “none of these photographs was voyeuristic” but noted that “the three ‘photographs’ submitted by Mr McCallister in support of his allegation … have been heavily ‘doctored’ by a person unknown in a vain attempt to make them appear in some way improper“.

There was no probing on The View in this regard or indeed on whether or not the modifications went beyond a simple cropping.

That’s a significantly loose thread in this tapestry which has yet to be addressed. It has the potential to illuminate or qualify Basil’s assertion that there was a broader conspiracy to unseat him as an MLA.

The most serious allegation (complaint 9) centred around “inappropriate sexual misconduct” in a La Mon Hotel room. Having completed one interview which discussed a range of other complaints, former staff member Ashleigh Murray did not make herself available (due to ill health) for a further interview with the Commissioner Douglas Bain to discuss this one.

The Commissioner states that the only evidence in support of the complaints comes from Miss Murray herself in the form of her unsworn complaint document. The Commissioner states in his Report that less weight falls to be afforded to that evidence than to the sworn and tested evidence from other sources.

He states that even if he had accepted Miss Murray complaint document as a credible and reliable source of evidence he would not have been satisfied, in light of the conflicting sworn testimony, that her allegations had been established. Accordingly, the Commissioner was not satisfied that any breach of the Code occurred in respect of any aspect of this complaint.

A number of Murray’s descriptions of what happened in Basil McCrea’s La Mon hotel room were found to vary substantially. The pair were there ostensibly to drop off bags and laptops but stayed longer.

The View Mark Carruthers Basil McCreaOn The View, Mark Carruthers bravely wondered what they had been doing.

McCrea at first prevaricated by explaining that while he could have dodged parts of the investigation by explaining he wasn’t acting as an MLA when the alleged incidents occurred, he had not taken that course of action as he wanted to be transparent.

[Carruthers] “That means it is reasonable for people to ask what you did during those two hours in that room alone with Ashleigh Murray? …

You’ve said it’s very important that people know that you didn’t do anything wrong but then you don’t tell them what it was that you were doing.”

Asked again McCrea spoke vaguely about discussing party strategy, filling time and a rugby match. He reminded the audience about the unreliability of Ashleigh Murray’s evidence and referred to redacted issues that if revealed “would explain a lot”.

He said that any suggestion of wrongdoing should have been taken to the PSNI. Out of the blue Mark Carruther’s questioning then became very specific.

[Carruthers] “Did you have a consensual sexual relationship with Ashleigh Murray?”

A flustered Basil McCrea refused to answer the direct question with a direct answer: he had cooperated with the investigation and wasn’t going to accept a second interrogation in the studio.

The question lingered and Basil continued to refuse to answer the specific question on the basis it would simply lead to further specific questions and denials.

Some other reflections on the fallout of the report.

The length of time to produce the final report, the inability to interview John McCallister and the failure to complete the interview with  key complainant Ashleigh Murray all serve to damage the reputation of the Assembly’s complaints process.

While accepting the conclusion that the complaint was not upheld, the Committee was not happy with Douglas Bain’s “language”.

However, the Committee also wishes to put on record that it did not agree with some of the language used by the Commissioner in relation to his assessment of the credibility of witnesses.

In his report the Commissioner has outlined his suspicions in relation to Ashleigh Murray’s “unwillingness” to attend further interview. The Committee does not consider it necessary to question these reasons.

The Commissioner for Standards has been busy recently. But his approach does not always carry the “confidence” of the Committee. Three complaints “from those interviewed [for this investigation] by the Commissioner in relation to the manner in which the Commissioner conducted interviews and a perception of bias from the Commissioner” will now be the subject of “an independent review and report … on how aspects of this investigation were conducted”.

Three complaints “from those interviewed [for this investigation] by the Commissioner in relation to the manner in which the Commissioner conducted interviews and a perception of bias from the Commissioner” will now be the subject of “an independent review and report … on how aspects of this investigation were conducted”.

The Committee made up of MLAs from other parties were not happy with Basil McCrea’s “poor judgement” on the occasions he “allowed young women into his hotel”.

The Committee notes that this is the second occasion within the Commissioner’s report where Mr McCrea has stated that he allowed young women into his hotel rooms. The Committee believes that Mr McCrea has exercised poor judgement by placing himself in this position. Mr McCrea would be well advised to exercise caution in this area in the future.

And while understanding that “MLA offices at times can be a stressful place to work” the Committee took the view “that conflict and differences of opinion in his Office could have been managed better by Mr McCrea”.

Thousands of text messages between NI21 staff members and their friends and colleagues were recovered from NI21 phones and presented as evidence to the investigation. Were staff aware that they could expect personal content left on party equipment to be retained by the party?

The Committee “agreed that there were a number of papers that were irrelevant to the investigation, in possible contravention of the data protection act or which may have breached duties of confidentiality”. This issue has been referred the issue to the Information Commissioner for further consideration.

In a normal working environment, the majority of these complaints would have been dealt with through internal processes and if unresolved would end up at the door of the Labour Relations Agency.

The Committee have previously concluded that “the issue of Members’ treatment of their own staff … could be subject of employment tribunals” and under a new Code of Conduct “the Commissioner will not investigate those complaints which should properly be resolved in another statutory or official forum”.