DUP SOCIAL Development Minister Nelson McCausland and his special advisor (SPAD) Stephen Brimstone are to be question under oath today by MLAs probing the controversy over the Red Sky housing scandal.
The Social Development Committee has been investigating allegations in a BBC NI Spotlight programme screened last summer.
Last August, the programme revealed that Housing Minister Nelson McCausland’s SPAD was accused of political interference in the award of a Housing Executive contract to Red Sky.
Then last November, a senior civil servant within his department revealed that he was told to change a letter to a Northern Ireland Assembly committee by the Minister’ private office.
The Social Development Committee was told by senior civil Michael Sands that he drafted a letter about a meeting held on April 16, 2012.
It heard that Minister McCausland’s private office then asked for the name Turkingtons to be changed to the Glass and Glazing Federation and another company called Fusion 21.
However, under questioning by committee member and TUV leader Jim Allister, Mr Sands said the change was inaccurate.
MLAs want to know whether or not the minister misled the committee over a meeting he held with Turkington Windows on April 16, 2012.
The inquiry is looking a letter after it asked on whose advice he had decided to suspend a major double glazing contract with the Housing Executive.
The minister wrote back saying his decision followed a meeting with the Glass and Glazing Federation and Mersyside-based social enterprise body Fusion 21.
However, two senior Turkingtons officials, including the managing director Jim McKeag, said it was clear they were there as representatives of the company, and not the federation of which Turkingtons is a member.
The DUP’s Trevor Clarke picked up on the point that in its letter to the minister requesting the meeting, Turkingtons mentioned it was a member of the Glass and Glazing Federation.
Mr Clarke asked if this could have led someone to construe that the company was therefore representing the federation.
Mr McKeag responded: “I don’t see how they could.”
A Housing Executive official, Dr John McPeake, who had also attended the meeting, said the first time he had heard any suggestion the meeting had involved the Glass and Glazing Federation was when the minister had made a statement to the assembly.
Asked if that had come as a surprise he replied: “Yes.”
The minister is expected to appear before the committee on 12 December.
The head of the civil service in Northern Ireland has revealed that the Department for Social Development (DSD) is carrying out a fact-finding exercise into the actions of Stephen Brimstone.
The probe will look at whether a code of conduct was breached.
It could lead to formal scrutiny of allegations that he tried to extend a multi-million-pound Housing Executive agreement with maintenance firm Red Sky despite suspected wrongdoing by the company.
NI civil service chief Dr Malcolm McKibbin said: “In the circumstances of this type of case the normal procedure is to carry out a fact-finding exercise to establish if there is any basis for proceeding with a formal disciplinary investigation, and this is how DSD has decided to proceed.”
Mr Brimstone made an eight-minute phone call to Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) board member and DUP councillor Jenny Palmer.
She claimed she was pressured to change her vote at a board meeting considering the Executive’s contract with the Red Sky maintenance company.
Red Sky’s £8 million-a-year deal was terminated four months before the July 2011 board meeting amid allegations that the east Belfast firm had overcharged for work on NIHE properties.
The Executive was to vote on a request from Mr McCausland to extend Red Sky’s contract, which the minister said was so arrangements could be put in place for a proper re-tendering process.
Traditional Unionist Voice MLA Jim Allister requested Mr McKibbin view the BBC Spotlight documentary which made the claims and investigate whether Mr Brimstone breached part of the special advisers’ code of conduct.
The code said advisers should act in a way which upholds the political impartiality of civil servants and avoid anything suggesting people paid from public funds were being used for party political purposes.
Mr McKibbin said the senior civil servant at the DSD, Will Haire, had been asked to consider whether the code was breached and he had confirmed his department would take the matter forward.
A DSD spokeswoman said: “The department can confirm that in accordance with normal HR procedure, it is carrying out a fact-finding exercise in relation to allegations made on the BBC Spotlight programme concerning the adviser to the minister for social development.”
During the Spotlight programme it was revealed that Jenny Palmer and Stephen Brimestone had a meeting with DUP leader Peter Robinson over the row.
She has now received a full apology over the way she has been treated during the ‘whistleblower’ affair.