The chief executive of Wexford County Council has faced an ethics hearing following allegations he threatened a local radio station with withdrawing sponsorship because of grievances with its current affairs coverage.
A hearing by the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPOC) was held today into the conduct of Tom Enright, the local authority's chief executive, after he said he would pull advertising that had been worth €160,000 to South East Radio in an 18-month period.
The allegations centred on email exchanges in August 2019 with station management, in which Mr Enright said he was ceasing its commercial relationship because the council could "not continue to support a radio station that behaved in this manner".
By doing this, Mr Enright was accused of breaching ethics legislation by failing to have regard to the Code of Conduct for employees.
SIPOC became involved following a complaint that Mr Enright had threatened to withdraw direct funding and advertising with South East Radio due to its coverage.
The council's chief executive raised particular grievances with comments made on air by a current affairs contributor and presenter of its business show, Karl Fitzpatrick.
In his emails, Mr Enright had said the decision to pull advertising was based on a view that the comments made by Mr Fitzpatrick were "biased, unprofessional and unfair" and that the council's "patience run out" in terms of the broadcaster's response.
Complaint to SIPOC
Mr Fitzpatrick had complained to SIPOC in October 2019 about Mr Enright's conduct.
Giving evidence at the hearing, managing director of South East Radio, Eamonn Buttle, said the problem appeared to be rooted in a "serious personal dispute between Mr Fitzpatrick and Mr Enright", but the threat of withdrawing council support created a significant problem for the station.
"No local radio station in the country can exist without the full cooperation of the county council," Mr Buttle said.
He said he was surprised by the threats and by Mr Enright's decision to decline the opportunity to come on air and take part in a debate.
Mr Enright's senior counsel, Conor Power said there was no evidence presented to the hearing that complaints were based on a personal dispute and were instead focused on Mr Fitzpatrick in his role as the presenter of the business show.
Hearing told of Enright 'threats'
The SIPOC hearing was told that in August 2019 that Mr Enright wrote to South East Radio to say the council was reviewing its commercial relationship with the station.
He also said the council was withdrawing its sponsorship of the annual hospitality awards.
The hearing was told the threat was subsequently withdrawn in September 2019 after it was agreed, at the suggestion of South East Radio, to refer the complaints to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland for a full investigation.
Although in doing so the broadcaster said it did not accept the validity of the complaints against its coverage but felt an independent investigation by the BAI would help resolve the matter.
At an early stage in today’s hearingm SIPOC ruled against Mr Enright's legal team in its challenge to its jurisdiction.
The commission said ordinarily a complaint should first be heard and considered by a local authority before it is referred to SIPOC.
However, the ruling said this case met the "exceptional circumstances" necessary to leapfrog a referral to the council because the allegation was against the chief executive of the council.
The seven-member commission took up the case after its inquiry officer, Rachel Lord, produced a report that said that in her view there was enough evidence to justify a public hearing into whether Mr Enright had breached the ethics legislation.
"I believe pressure was put on to alter the broadcasting practices of the station and that was not in keeping with the standards expect in the Code of Conduct," Ms Lord said.