Monday, 9 November 2009

Seray-Wurie document reveals council incompetence

The story of Dr Seray-Wurie and £600k of missing charity cash generated a lot of interest. In an editorial on 3 September 2009 the Hackney Gazette said there was "an overpowering whiff of scandal" (page 16) about the £600k of tax-payer's cash paid into Seray-Wurie's personal bank account.

It published two letters under the banner: "What happened to missing charity money?" The letters can be seen here. Seray-Wurie replied in a letter claiming that he was the victim (page 18) of a witch-hunt. A further letter called "Teamwork is far from very good" said: "Dr Seray-Wurie's account of what happened to the money in question is variously unconvincing or demonstrably wrong."

The Mirror also took a look at the story: So Dr Seray-Wurie of African Development Agencies: Where's the money?

The fuss followed a report by the Charity Commission earlier this year which investigated what Seray-Wurie had done with the money.


One document that looked like it might help explain why Seray-Wurie and his charities were ever entitled to the cash was the 2000 judgement which ordered Hackney Council to pay him the money.

Hackney Council was not helpful in providing this document - in fact it didn't provide this document. At first the press office said that the relevant person who would know where the document might be found was in court. Then I was told that this person was on holiday, then that the document in question was probably at the bottom of a pile of paperwork in some distant storage facility.

Luckily the Charity Commission provided a copy.

Hackney Council has said that the money was not its responsibility once it had been ordered to pay it by the court. It said that the 600k then became the responsibility of the court. It also suggested that it might not be fair to hold the current administration responsible for anything that took place during this dark period in the council's history.

According to the documents, it seems to be a matter of luck that the 600k claim (which was for grants which Hackney Council had promised to pay but then didn't) wasn't a lot higher. The extraordinary thing about it is that most of this claim was based on Dr Seray-Wurie's memory - not paperwork.

As Judge Thornton said in his judgement most of the documentation was missing: "This was because both parties had lost, mislaid, destroyed, or parted with possession of, all these documents. Indeed, apart from some incomplete correspondence and minutes of meetings of some of the relevant subcommittees of the LBH, the evidence of these matters came almost entirely from Dr Seray-Wurie, based on his memory, which was refreshed by his earlier formulation of the claims in 1992."

Judge Thornton said: "Dr Seray-Wurie gave three reasons for this remarkable absence of documentation. These were, firstly, that all relevant documents in the HAO's possession that were then in existence were stolen from Africa House, the principal offices of the HAO, in two burglaries that occurred in 1988. Those documents that were not stolen were lost or damaged irretrievably by builders and the movement of documents during the refurbishment work - 6 Dalston Lane that was carried out in between 1985 and 1987. The second reason was that, subsequently, in 1989, the HAO was put under review followed by a financial review by the LBH and the LBH took possession of all its relevant documents still in its possession, including its accounts, and never returned them. The third reason was that such documents as could have been obtained from third parties, particularly the HAO's bank, such as bank statements and other bank records, were no longer available, even on microfiche. These had not been obtained before they were disposed of by the bank since the HAO had changed its bank in 1992 on account of the declining turnover passing through its bank account and the consequent high overdraft interest charges being incurred. There were never, evidently, any documents that were retained by the HAO's accountants once they had prepared its annual accounts.

Even if there had been something wrong with the claims made by Seray-Wurie, we'll never know now: "Since the LBH made no attempt to sub poena third parties, including the HAO's then bank, had not sought verifying affidavits from Dr Seray-Wurie during the discovery process which might have elaborated on these reasons and did not seriously seek to challenge this explanation for the absence of documents, the trial proceeded on the basis that there was no suspicious reason why these HAO documents were not available.

The reason for the laxity is partially explained by this: "It is clear that, at that stage, the LBH regarded the HAO's claims as spurious and incapable of proof and that it would be an unnecessary waste of resources to undertake internal searches to obtain its computerised records and the potentially relevant documents which it felt were scattered through many files and buildings. Thus, no further searches for documents were carried out."

But this defence can only be taken so far because when Hackney Council did manage to find the required documents, it then lost them again: "Ms Cox instructed an Accountancy Assistant member of her team, Ms Julia Udennis, to undertake the task of searching through the microfiches stored in the payment section of the Finance Directorate. Ms Udennis found a large number of relevant microfiches which appeared to show payments by the LBH to the HAO and she printed out the relevant pages. She handed these copies to Ms Cox who put them into an envelope and sent them through the LBH's internal mail system to Mr Evans. The envelope containing these copies of the microfiches also contained a compliments slip dated 14 November 1997.

"What happened to this envelope from 14 November 1997 until 17 March 2000 is a mystery but, on that later date, Mr Lomas, the lawyer in the LBH's Legal Services Unit currently in charge of the case, came across the envelope by chance whilst clearing out dead files in his department for transfer to some newly acquired storage space. I am satisfied that this discovery was genuine and occurred by coincidence, being unrelated to the fact that the hearings in this case had been concluded and judgment was awaited. However, it is this discovery, and the documents it threw up, that has led to the application with which I am now concerned."

This is just a tiny part of an enormous document. If anyone wants to see a copy of this document please email bloodandproperty at live dot com.

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