A Government leak investigation has been ordered after Belfast Telegraph revelations on Minister Sammy Wilson's lobbying of his own planning officials.
In a further twist to the controversy, it has been discovered that the Department of the Environment failed to disclose high-level email messages about the lobbying.
These emails involved two of the DoE’s most senior officials and reflect internal unease about Mr Wilson's representations on constituency planning cases.
But the messages were not included in a freedom of information disclosure on the subject.
According to the DoE, they may have been deleted as part of “routine IT housekeeping”.
An assurance had previously been given that all relevant material held by the Department had been issued.
The DoE leak inquiry is one of two ordered by Permanent Secretary Stephen Peover in relation to recent press stories. The other relates to a Sunday Life report about the Minister being fined for riding a motorbike without tax or an MOT.
A spokesman for the Department confirmed: “An investigation was ordered by the Permanent Secretary into the origin of the Sunday Life story of October 19.
“The Permanent Secretary has also ordered an investigation into a series of stories on planning related matters in the Belfast Telegraph.”
This newspaper revealed in September that Mr Wilson was continuing to lobby DoE Planning Service staff on individual cases, despite being in overall charge of planning as Environment Minister.
He maintained that he was simply doing his job as a constituency MP and MLA — a stance backed by Departmental chiefs. Mr Wilson also criticised the Belfast Telegraph, claiming that a report suggesting internal DoE concern had been run “without it being substantiated in any way”.
Civil service union Nipsa expressed disquiet about officials being placed in an “invidious” position.
A freedom of information (FOI) disclosure last month revealed a series of emails among planning staff on Mr Wilson’s ongoing letters on individual cases.
In one of the emails sent in August, Planning Service chief executive Cynthia Smith referred to “similar type concerns” being voiced within the DoE’s Environment Agency wing.
The Belfast Telegraph checked with the Department last month to make sure all relevant documents sought under the FOI request had been issued.
In reply, an official stated: “I can assure you that the search for information covered your full inquiry, in that it covers correspondence between Divisional Planning Offices, Planning Service Headquarters, the Permanent Secretary and Minister Wilson.
“No documentation has been held back and copies of all correspondence held by the Department have been issued to you.”
But it has now been discovered that further emails were exchanged on the subject during the summer at the highest levels of the DoE.
On July 4, Planning Service chief Cynthia Smith emailed the Permanent Secretary in connection with “Ministerial letters to planning staff”.
She noted that Mr Peover had “already raised this” but added that “we need to raise again”.
Mr Peover replied later that day stating: “Yes I did speak to the Minister, but clearly we will need a further discussion.”
The DoE was asked by this newspaper to explain why this email exchange had not been included in the FOI disclosure.
In reply, a spokesman said a further check had been undertaken and Planning Service had been “unable to find the email”.
He added: “It may be that such an email may have been deleted from the Department's email system as part of routine IT housekeeping and this could explain why the document was not discovered when responding to your original FOI request.”
The content and frequency of Mr Wilson’s letters to officials on constituency cases does not appear to have altered since July, when the high-level emails were exchanged.
In a statement last month reiterating the Minister’s right to lobby, the Department said: “As MPs and MLAs, ministers can raise issues relating to their constituencies with divisions and agencies within their departments. A conflict of interest would only arise where a minister is involved in the final decision making process on a particular issue. Any such conflict will be avoided.”
The Minister, meanwhile, recently said: “First of all, I would never, ever dream of going in and saying, ‘I'm a minister, you get that sorted, you do what I say’. I know where the limits are there and if I did my officials would be equally entitled to tell me to naff off.
“Of course they'll listen to my views and everything else, but I'm not entitled to bully them into making decisions I particularly want them to make.”