Man claims he got sacked for being a whistleblower
5:30pm Wednesday 14th August 2013 in News
A WORKER at a Swindon homeless charity spoke out after learning of a proposal by the chief executive to lease out a house she owned to the organisation.
Tony Niester was dismayed to read details of the plan to use Cher Sawyer-Smith’s home to provide accommodation to people supported by Threshold Housing Link.
Mr Niester and co-worker James Derieg were sacked after they aired concerns over governance, financial arrangements and conflicts of interest in the Adver.
The former outreach worker gave evidence at the second day of an employment tribunal in Bristol yesterday.
Mrs Sawyer-Smith, who is married to the charity’s operations director Phil Smith, wanted to lease out the house while the couple lived in a housing association flat.
Mr Niester, from Old Town, said he did not raise it as a grievance after losing confidence in the charity’s whistleblowing procedure following a previous complaint.
He told the tribunal: “I had no faith in the trustees from previous experience, no faith they would stop it and object to what was being suggested. I know in 2009 the same proposal was made to the trustees, who said it was conflict of interests and a governance issue.”
Mr Niester said he went to former chairman of trustees Angus Macpherson, Salvation Army hostel manager Brian Gibb and a number of other people before contacting the Adver.
The proposal had been included in a conflicts of interests register by Threshold and Mrs Sawyer-Smith had consulted Swindon Council to check the deal did not break any rules.
But it was judged to be a conflict of interests by the trustees and she withdrew the application.
Robert Cater, for Threshold, suggested to Mr Niester the couple was being “open and honest” about the plan, which had been posted on Threshold’s intranet.
Referring to Mr Niester’s belief that a criminal offence had been committed, he asked: “Why didn’t you take your concerns about the lease to the police?”
Mr Niester replied: “I don’t know is the honest answer.”
Mr Niester also told the tribunal his working arrangements were changed after the conclusion of the previous complaint, related to Mrs Sawyer-Smith accepting a £200 gift from a resident for her son.
The co-workers were shadowed by other Threshold staff on the streets of Swindon and their hours were redistributed which meant they worked Friday mornings they would have otherwise had off.
Notes from Mr Niester’s confidential whistleblowing hearing were accidentally placed on Threshold’s server so all staff could view the details. The charity admitted this was done in error.
Mr Smith said in his evidence that the change in hours had not been made because of the whistleblowing process.
He said: “Ultimately the risk about health and safety comes down to me and I believe it’s safer to have two staff out on the street rather than one and that’s what I was implementing.”
Mr Smith said he had found himself homeless and had been squatting before finding accommodation at the flat through the housing association.
Mr Smith said the proposed lease deal for a ‘black and minority ethnic house’ was “cost neutral” because the rent would cover the outlay.
But he was asked by Andrew Edwards, a lay member of the tribunal panel, if the deal would be a capital gain further down the line.
Mr Smith said: “The business plan at the property would benefit homeless people, at least eight people a year in the resettlement programme.”
Chairman of the trustees Trevor Davies used his evidence to repeat his assertion, made in the original Adver article, that the whistleblowers were pursuing a “witch-hunt” against Mr Sawyer-Smith.
Under cross-examination he was questioned by Mr Derieg, representing himself and Mr Niester, about those comments.
Mr Derieg asked: “Do you still believe that we are vindictive witch-hunters?”
Mr Davies replied: “Yes. It might sound harsh. Despite any information you get, you seem to take the opinion that your opinion is right irrespective of evidence presented to you. It comes to a point where there are other motives in this.”
The retired magistrate also told the hearing the lease deal, which came to light in April last year, had been rejected by the trustees as a conflict of interests. He investigated the £200 gift for Mrs Sawyer-Smith’s son Ben to buy a headstone for his own son’s grave but the resident died before he could complete his inquiry.
The tribunal is due to hear closing submissions from Mr Niester and Mr Derieg today.
The pair were sacked last June for gross misconduct after breaching the charity’s media policy.
They are pursuing a case of wrongful dismissal, arguing they made ‘protected disclosures’ in the public interest to the Adver.