RHI Inquiry: I shared confidential letter with Robinson's son- ex-DUP adviser
A former DUP adviser has admitted at a public inquiry that he shared a confidential legal letter with the lobbyist son of former first minister Peter Robinson.
Dr Andrew Crawford leaked the letter — linked to the controversial planning case involving a John Lewis store at Sprucefield — to Gareth Robinson, who he admitted giving preferential treatment to over other lobbyists.
The evidence was recovered from deleted emails.
Dr Crawford was the special adviser to Arlene Foster when she was Enterprise Minister and the botched Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) was set up.
At the RHI inquiry yesterday, Dr Crawford said he had only meant to send an email from the Departmental Solicitors’ Office on the progress of the planning case linked to John Lewis.
He admitted he may have been “clumsy” and attached the legal letter, but “it’s something I shouldn’t have done”.
He added that it was likely he sent the email on the request of Peter Robinson, First Minister at the time, or his then advisor Richard Bullick.
Counsel for the inquiry, Joseph Aiken, said that even though the letter may not have given Gareth Robinson an advantage, he should not have sent it.
The Environment Minister at the time had approved the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP), which stopped John Lewis from moving forward.
Arlene Foster, then Enterprise Minister, started a legal case as she felt a decision needed to be taken by the Executive as a whole.
The legal letter was a summary of the Deti case and was circulated internally to officials as well as Dr Crawford. He then sent this to Gareth Robinson, he said.
“Obviously Gareth was Peter’s son and because of that I tended to respond to his queries probably quicker than I would have replied to other PR companies,” he said.
“I believe it was the information in the body of the email that was of value to him.
“I don’t believe there was any privileged document that was of advantage to him. It would have been more the timeline he was looking for.”
On Wednesday, Dr Crawford denied he had engaged in insider trading when the RHI panel questioned him about sending Deti information to a senior manager at poultry giant Moy Park. He also admitted to sending information to family members with interests in the poultry sector about changes to the RHI scheme.
Yesterday, the RHI panel’s counsel Joseph Aiken asked Dr Crawford if he would now revise his earlier testimony that he wasn’t in the habit of sending confidential information to those outside government.
“I don’t think it was a widespread habit,” he said.
Gareth Robinson’s PR and lobbying company, Verbatim Communications, was mentioned again when it was revealed that Dr Crawford had met two of Mr Robinson’s clients who worked in renewable energy.
Dr Crawford had sent them an advance copy about a consultation on changes to the energy market from the UK Government.
He said this was sent on a Friday before the publication on Monday, meaning the companies — Lightsource and Gaelectric — were only given a two day advantage ahead of a six week consultation.
Mr Aiken asked if this made him “a rogue operator” or if it was the usual practice of special advisers.
“I don’t believe I was a rogue,” he replied.
Asked why he would distribute documents early, Dr Crawford said it was only to engage with energy companies in the hope they would keep him up to date about the industry which he could bring to the minister.
He said Mrs Foster knew he was attending meetings, but was unaware he was providing them with advance copies of documents.
After Dr Crawford admitted he “should not have done it”, panel member Dame Una O’Brien said he had been “at best, bending the rules”. She said he had been “prepared to work outside the rules by making documents available in this way”.
The inquiry chair, Sir Patrick Coghlin, asked Dr Crawford if he still released official information after he left Deti and worked in other departments.
“I would have had engagement with various players. I don’t recall releasing any material, but I am conscious of my previous statement,” he said.
“So, I’m not going to sit here and say ‘No, I didn’t release any material’, but I don’t believe there was any sensitive material released.”