Belfast Telegraph

My whistleblowing was a heroic act, sacked PR chief Garbhan Downey tells job tribunal

BY JOANNE SWEENEY

A senior executive at Londonderry's Culture Company who went to the media with his "genuinely held concerns about the misappropriation of public funds" has no regrets about his actions, an industrial tribunal has heard.

Garbhan Downey, former director of marketing and communications for the Culture Company 2013, told the disciplinary panel judging his suspension that he felt "justified" in his actions, which he believed was "a heroic act".

He is claiming unfair dismissal from the £65,000 a year post with the company responsible for organising Derry's City of Culture celebrations.

Mr Downey was suspended for gross misconduct in October 2012 after he released a letter to the media revealing the marketing department was set to be transferred to Derry City Council, along with the staff – excluding himself – and its £1.6m budget. However, the tribunal heard that at this time neither his employer nor Derry City Council had a whistleblower policy in place for employees.

Noirin McKinney, one of the company's board members at Mr Downey's disciplinary hearing in January, gave evidence that when asked if he found himself in the same situation again, would he take the same course of action, Mr Downey said that he would.

Mr Downey's actions were investigated on three key grounds – that he disclosed confidential information to a third party, that he had brought the organisation into disrepute, and he had committed a gross breach of trust and confidence.

Ms McKinney told the tribunal that the panel concluded that he had not sought alternative channels to make his concerns known.

She repeatedly denied Mr Downey's suggestions that she had come to the internal hearing with a "predetermined view".

Mr Downey's barrister consistently argued that Mr Downey's actions were taken in a "public interest issue".

The hearing heard this context was not taken into account or investigated by the council's independent human resource consultant Dr Carol Ackah in her report or by the disciplinary panel at their hearing.

Dr Ackah acknowledged in her evidence that while Mr Downey had "very sincerely held beliefs" that his disclosure was in the public interest, she concluded that "in the balance of probability" his actions had brought the council into disrepute and there had been a breach of trust and confidence.

The tribunal also heard that it was not her role to investigate the reasons behind the disclosure, but her report recommended that the panel consider this, as well as developing a whistleblower procedure for employees.

It was acknowledged in evidence that there had been no previous concerns with Mr Downey's work performance.

BACKGROUND

A letter from Derry City Council's chief executive, Sharon O'Connor, to the chief executive of the Culture Company, Shona McCarthy, is at the centre of this industrial tribunal. On October 3, 2012, the letter stated that the company's marketing department staff and budget would be transferred to the council on October 5. Ms McCarthy then shares this letter with relevant staff. The next day marketing director Garbhan Downey releases the letter to the Press, leading to extensive media reporting. The tribunal resumes on Thursday, December 5.

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