Daily Post column: Time for answers from Merseytravel about legal bill
THERE is nothing new in one politician suing another. It happens regularly enough, certainly in local government circles.
Indeed, one local law firm has a special division set up to deal with such cases.
This week, we reported on the defamation action Merseytravel's Labour chairman Mark Dowd is taking against Liberal Democrat Andrew Makinson.
It seems that Cllr Dowd and Merseytravel did not like the wording in a press release about the chairman's authorised personal spending on the authority's credit card.
But what sets this case apart is that the taxpayer (you and I) are picking up part of Cllr Dowd's bill.
How much will the taxpayer pay? We don't know because Merseytravel refuses to discuss it, ironically until the legal case is complete.
The transport authority has seemingly made a decision about this, yet refuses to explain it. Why?
Excuses about not wanting to interfere with the legal process do not hold water.
All we know is what Merseytravel's senior legal officer, Tony Fitzpatrick, told Cllr Makinson in an email by way of explanation: "As Cllr Dowd is chair of the authority, it was felt that the press reports had harmed the reputation of the authority, and on this basis it was considered that the authority should fund the legal costs associated with protecting the organisation's reputation.
"The expenditure for the legal advice is within Neil Scales's expenditure limit approvals as chief executive of the authority, and so no further approvals were necessary to approve this expenditure."
It is worth pointing out that it is not possible in law to defame a public authority.
In 1993 (Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers) the House of Lords ruled that local government or central government institutions could not sue for defamation because this would place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech.
Even so, Merseytravel's reputation probably has taken a knocking.
Perhaps this is because it has been shown once more to be out of touch with the way the modern world works (or should work).
For the sake of clarity, Cllr Dowd broke no rules in using the Merseytravel credit card, as there was an agreement with the authority that he could use it for personal spending and then reimburse payments.
This was always done in a timely manner, of this I have no doubt.
He used it to pay for theatre tickets, and a trip to Alcatraz while on holiday in the USA.
Attendances to the Labour Party conference were also paid for on the card, but not reimbursed because Merseytravel said he attended to represent the authority.
If Cllr Dowd needs to spend money on a credit card while on holiday, should he not use his own?
Should the taxpayer fund him to attend the Labour Party conference?
These are legitimate questions for Cllr Makinson or anyone to ask.
Frankly, most people will find it strange that he had a Merseytravel credit card anyway.
I suspect that, had Merseytravel and Cllr Dowd not decided to go down the legal road, this story would have been a one-hit wonder for Cllr Makinson.
His email was sent to journalists, who then were able to make their own checks and report their own stories.
If there were any defamatory statements in the press release (and I am not saying there were) they were not translated into the pages of this paper or the air time broadcasters gave to it.
If the defamation case was intended to silence Cllr Makinson, it has achieved the opposite.
This story now has legs, and will continue to run and run. And those very reputations that the action was intended to protect will be eroded with each outing it gets.