Local Democracy Reporter gets access to report claiming officer used council staff to help on her private vineyard

A senior council officer as dismissed following allegations that she used council staff to build glamping pods, lay turf and remove a dead pig from her vineyard — and details became public thanks to a local democracy reporter.

A whistleblower contacted South Somerset District Council in April last year making allegations against Clare Pestell, who was the council’s director of commercial and income generation.

An independent investigation was conducted into numerous claims that council money and resources had been misused by Ms Pestell.

The findings of the investigation were contained in a confidential report, which was seen by Local Democracy Reporter Daniel Mumby, who covers councils in Somerset for the BBC-funded scheme and is employed by SomersetLive.

Ms Pestell, who vehemently denied the allegations, was summarily dismissed in October after the Appointments Committee of the council met to discuss the findings of independent external investigator Richard Penn.

Ms Pestell, who had already resigned and was serving out her notice, appealed the decision but the decision was upheld by the council’s appeals committee. She left the council in October.

Daniel wrote: “Although the council has not released the report, we believe there is a strong public interest in reporting the dismissal of the senior officer who was in charge of the authority’s commercial investment programme and who had been lined up as interim chief executive.

“We also believe that the public has a right to know that that dismissal came after an independent investigator found she had breached the council’s code of conduct on numerous occasions and had risked bringing the authority into serious disrepute.

Ms Pestell began working for South Somerset District Council in 2012 as a development and valuation manager, before being promoted in 2017 to become its director of commercial and income generation.

This put her in charge of the council’s commercial investment programme — under which the council invested millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in commercial properties, such as offices and retail outlets, with the rental income serving as a long-term funding source for front-line services.

The whistleblower letter — which has not been made public — alleged Ms Pestell had breached the council’s code of conduct by failing to “declare conflicts of interest between her official duties for the council and her private business, her personal relationships and other interests.”

The independent report concluded Ms Pestell had breached the council’s code of conduct numerous times, identifying several occasions where she used council employees to carry out work on her Dorset winery, and recommended she should be subject to a disciplinary hearing for gross misconduct.

She failed to declare that council staff had been used (on council time) to build glamping pods, strim grass, lay turf outside her cottage and — on one occasion in February 2020 — remove a dead pig from her land, his report found.

According to the report, she sent a message to an officer on February 24, 2020, asking them to take the pig to the Frome Vale livestock dealer near Maiden Newton.

Ms Pestell also failed to declare that one of her relatives was appointed to the council’s commercial services and income generation team, having been recruited out of the council’s normal recruitment processes through an external agency — which charged the council for its services.

Mr Penn also concluded she had “risked bringing the council into serious disrepute” by paying council employees cash in hand or in kind for work done on her winery.

When interviewed by Mr Penn, Ms Pestell “consistently denied” all of the allegations laid before her, according to his report.

She acknowledged that the code of conduct had been breached and council resources had been misused, but “blamed other managers in her directorate for allowing this to happen” — claiming that she would have taken “corrective action” if such things had been brought to her attention, the report said.

The Local Democracy Reporter Scheme funds 165 journalists across the UK to report on the affairs of local councils. It is run as a partnership between the BBC and reputable publishers who meet a set of criteria set by the BBC and News Media Association.

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