Revelations in The Scotsman newspaper confirming that Drugs enforcement officers warned disgraced ex council leader Steven Purcell of a video they believed existed of him taking drugs have now been followed by an admission from at least one senior Labour councillor that he knew of the SCDEA visit.
It has emerged that a letter explaining the details of the meeting was sent to Glasgow council’s most senior official, chief executive George Black on 8th March. It has also just emerged that Labour councillor Paul Rooney – the man expected to replace the disgraced former council leader – has now confessed to knowing about the SCDEA visit all along.
The meeting with Mr Purcell took place in council chambers in May last year where he was told he had been seen socialising with a suspect in a major police drugs surveillance operation and warned that such a video could make him a blackmail target.
The emergence of the letter, written on 8th March by one of Steven Purcell’s advisors at the behest of Mr Black, has brought fresh calls for an investigation into how the Labour controlled council has been run.
SNP group leader James Dornan said:
“It seems that very important information has been kept by senior officials from the council. Either that or Mr Black did know the meeting had taken place, in which case his behaviour is negligent.
“Either way, there should be an investigation into the way the council was being run.”
The letter also confirms that the phrase ‘chemical dependency’ was indeed part of a draft press release by council officials.
There have been conflicting versions of exactly what transpired in the days prior to Purcell’s downfall, a fall that appears to have begun at the Labour fundraising dinner on Thursday February 25th attended by Gordon Brown.
Early newspaper reports say that Purcell was escorted home from the function in a car after a Glasgow councillor became concerned at his agitated state, however this was contradicted by Purcell in last week’s interview with The Sun where he claimed to have gone drinking after the function.
What is agreed is that Mr Purcell hosted a scheduled meeting with Labour’s Glasgow MSPs on Friday morning (Feb 26th) after the event, but is said to have gone home later that day after his condition deteriorated.
It seems clear that the ‘chemical dependency’ press release was drafted quickly after Purcell was visited the following day by his advisers Brian Lironi and Colin Edgar, head of press at Glasgow City Council.
It is widely accepted that during this visit Mr Purcell is said to have confirmed past drug use and also to problems with drink. The Sunday Times reported that Purcell revealed to friends and colleagues that same Saturday that on a three-day trip to London on council business he used cocaine several times.
However there is confusion as to what exactly was decided by Purcell’s advisors immediately after that visit. Some newspaper reports have advisors deciding at this point that Purcell ought to come clean and resign whilst others like The Telegraph newspaper claim to have been told by party sources that on the Saturday colleagues unsuccessfully tried to talk an emotional Mr Purcell out of quitting.
The Herald reports on March 3rd that:
“.. senior figures within the Labour administration discussed every possible scenario and what potential details could emerge in the coming days.”
The Herald also reported that one of the scenarios still being considered by Purcell’s advisors was for him to remain in his position until the annual general meeting of the city Labour group in May.
The same paper also curiously claimed that:
“Some younger elected members known to be close to the former leader were also questioned by colleagues as to how much they knew of the strains he was under and whether he was exhibiting any problems in his private life.”
On Monday 1st March, the day before the resignation, The Herald reports that Labour councillors Paul Carey, Paul Rooney and George Ryan were updated about the events of the weekend. Also briefed were Deputy council leader Jim Coleman, Labour group chairwoman Jean McFadden, council chief executive George Black, chief solicitor Ian Drummond and Labour group business manager Aileen Colleran. Colin Smyth, the general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party is also alerted.
How long have Labour known?
Steven Purcell claimed this week that shortly after the SCDEA meeting in 2009 he confessed to colleagues that he had indeed used cocaine but that they were happy for him to carry on, provided that the drug use stopped.
Purcell told The Sun newspaper that he had stopped using cocaine weeks before the visit by the SCDEA officers, and said of his earlier cocaine use:
“I told close colleagues at the council about it because I think it is important to be honest.
“They were happy for me to carry on – with the strict condition that it never happened again.”
The letter confirming details of the SCDEA visit together with the claims by Purcell himself this week will call into question claims made by council sources on 9th March that: “We have told people everything. Everything is out there. The idea that we are sitting on things has no basis in fact.”
There will also be questions as to why council officials chose the phrase ‘chemical dependency’ when Purcell claims his breakdown was alcohol related. If, as has been claimed, council officials and party colleagues were unaware that Purcell had any sort of drug problem in the weeks and months leading up to his breakdown then such a phrase is simply bizarre.
The claims that Purcell used cocaine on the London trip, even if true, could hardly be described as a ‘dependency’. The implication is that someone was, if not aware that Steven Purcell had a drug problem, had at least a suspicion of one.
The Telegraph on March 2nd quotes Jim Coleman as saying:
“It was a great shock. We didn’t know Steven was under such pressure. I never picked anything up.”
This seems surprising given newspaper reports that have revealed bizarre telephone calls by Purcell as well as behaviour that saw him frequently unable to attend meetings on Mondays. Purcell is also known to have on at least two occassions flown off suddenly to a favourite holiday destination, despite the council not being in recess.
However, the most serious allegation of all concerns reports that Downing Street themselves knew of rumours about Steven Purcell as far back as 2008. On March 08th The Times alleged that Senior Labour Party figures were made aware two years ago of rumours that Steven Purcell was a cocaine-user.
Labour’s response thus far has ranged from dismissing the claim as “malicious gossip” to a carefully worded statement that they have never “investigated” Purcell nor have they ever “questioned” him.
The pressure intensified when on Thursday 17th March Gordon Brown was asked specifically at Prime Ministers Questions whether a Downing Street staffer had taken part in a 2008 telephone conference call that discussed Steven Purcell’s suitability. Over two weeks later and despite Brown promising to investigate the claim there is still nothing from number 10.
The longer Gordon Brown remains silent on this the more the suspicions will grow and the pressure will increase.
There now appears a reluctance to pursue the original scandal by the Scottish media, the same reluctance that was evident when the story first broke. Indeed the phrase now adopted by Labour politicians and media representatives alike is ‘Personal Tragedy’.
Moreover there is a suspicion that elements of the Scottish media are instead more interested in trying divert attention from the uncomfortable ‘who knew what’ aspects of the story onto something else.
There is a growing feeling that alleged Labour corruption, misuse of public funds and party cronyism is being conflated with the mere participation on arm’s-length organisations (ALEOS) by other party councillors as a way of suggesting ‘they are all at it’.
SNP Leader James Dornan has responded to such stories by saying: “What should we do?
“Is Labour really asking us to just walk away and let them run these bodies as they please in some darkened room?
“Our board members have repeatedly raised questions about transparency on these boards to me and are we seriously being asked not to be enthusiastic about sitting on the boards?
Mr Dornan added:
“We have the largest numbers on the Aleos after Labour because we are by far the largest opposition. We do not set the remuneration but remain opposed to these bodies, as we’ve always done.
Who were the four colleagues Purcell claims to have told of his cocaine use in 2009?
Who were the MSP’s Purcell met on the Friday and what was discussed?
Why did council officials choose the phrase ‘chemical dependency’ for what Purcell claimed was an alcohol problem?
Did (as claimed) advisors and officials consider letting Purcell stay on as leader until May?
Why have we heard nothing from Gordon Brown 17 days after promising to investigate the conference call claim?
Update – 04 April 09:45
Labour councillor Paul Rooney – favourite to replace Steven Purcell – has confessed to having been informed of the SCDEA visit on the day it happened. Mr Rooney claims not to have known about cocaine use and has claimed that despite being told about the visit he asked nothing of its purpose.
Mr Rooney is quoted in The Sunday Herald as saying:
“I was informed on the day that officers would be in the City Chambers to speak to Steven Purcell about a personal matter. I had absolutely no reason to believe it related to any criminal activity involving Steven Purcell.”
It is not known if Mr Rooney passed the information onto any other Labour colleagues, however he did acknowledge that he was aware that rumours had indeed been circulating about the former Labour and council leader.
Paul Rooney, is a former procurator fiscal depute and chairman of Strathclyde Police Board; his judgement will surely be called into question given that he failed to ask why Drugs Enforcement officers had interviewed the council leader in council chambers.
Another Labour councillor – George Ryan – has admitted confronting Purcell about his drinking and claimed that people were indeed aware of Purcell’s behaviour.
Mr Ryan is quoted as saying:
“People had been saying to me about the boozing, and saying he’s out practically every night, and he’s been out practically every night since the summer, and I confronted him about it. I said, ‘Look Steven, people are noticing it.”
However Ryan claims to have known nothing about the SCDEA visit but admitted that such a visit was indeed significant.
In contrast to his Labour colleagues reaction to the SCDEA visit, Mr Ryan said: “If those guys come to talk to you, it’s bloody serious. I never knew a dickie bird about the Drug Enforcement Agency.”
Secretary of State Jim Murphy is reported to support Paul Rooney as replacement for Steven Purcell.