Belfast Telegraph

Suspended Priestly 'not scapegoat'

A senior civil servant suspended over a scandal linked to Northern Ireland's Government-owned water company was not made a scapegoat, his minister has insisted.

Regional development minister Conor Murphy rejected claims from political rivals that permanent secretary Paul Priestly was singled out in a bid to draw a line under successive controversies that have rocked Northern Ireland Water (NIW).

Mr Priestly is the subject of a civil service investigation over claims he drafted a letter of complaint to a powerful Stormont scrutiny committee by one of a team of independent investigators probing NIW's business.

While Mr Murphy supported the decision to suspend Mr Priestly, the Sinn Fein minister said he retained confidence in NIW's chief executive Laurence MacKenzie who was copied into the email which contained the suggested text of the letter.

The minister also denied claims his own position was in question as the head of the department that has responsibility for NIW.

"There is no question here of scapegoating anyone," he said. "The head of the civil service agreed that the issues surrounding Paul Priestly were such that they merited his suspension and an investigation to be launched and I agree with that and made my views clear on that."

Four NIW board members were sacked in March after the independent probe found that £28.5 million in contracts were issued without properly tendering the work.

But the incident that prompted Mr Priestly's suspension related to later exchanges between one of the independent reviewers and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which was also investigating the NIW affair.

Phoenix Gas chief executive Peter Dixon was unhappy with the tone and direction of some of the questions he faced from PAC members and wrote a letter of complaint.

While that letter was later withdrawn, it has emerged that Mr Priestly had originally offered Mr Dixon advice on the form the letter should take.

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