Procurement exec at centre of West Ham Olympic Stadium crisis

Procurement hit the front pages again yesterday – but not in a very positive manner unfortunately. The Sunday Times, investigating the decision to “award” the Olympic Stadium (post-2012) to West Ham football club rather than Tottenham, employed private detectives and found this.

One of London’s biggest football clubs has been exposed for making secret payments to an executive on the body that awarded the stadium to the club…. West Ham United made payments totalling £20,000… before and after it was selected as the owner of the stadium in east London.  The money was paid to Dionne Knight, the Porsche-driving director of corporate services at the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC), the quango that awarded the stadium to West Ham.

Knight was previously Head of Procurement for Newham Council. The £20,000 payments were made, she says, for consulting work carried out for West Ham, independent of her role with OPLC. Her lawyer said it was “a procurement contract in relation to the stadium”.

But what makes it look worse is the payments were made by Ian Tompkins, a West Ham director who is in a relationship with Knight. Now OPLC knew about that relationship, but not about the work or cash from West Ham.

A later report says that “West Ham are taking legal action against Tottenham Hotspur and The Sunday Times over allegations surrounding the validity of the Olympic Stadium bidding process”.  So we better be careful about what we say here!

Let’s start with an extract from the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply ethical code (although I have no idea whether Knight is a member).

As a member of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing & Supply, I will...

...declare any personal interest that might affect, or be seen by others to affect, my impartiality or decision making

The key words here are “be seen by others to affect”. Even if Knight believes she acted totally properly , gave great value for the £20K fee from West Ham, and has had no influence whatsoever on the stadium decision, how does this look to “others”?  Might they see it as affecting her impartiality – even if she wasn’t directly involved in the process, as a Director of OPLC might she have had influence of some sort?

Then there is the fact that she did not declare the work and payments to her boss.  Let’s hypothesise. Suppose she had approached her Chief Executive, before the award to West Ham was made, and said “I want to do some consulting for West Ham alongside my job for OPLC. Is that OK”?

What would he have said? We don’t know.

But personally, I would have said this.

“Look Dionne, we value your work, and we know about your relationship with Tompkins.  Frankly, that’s not ideal, but we’re managing it by keeping you out of the bid process. But actually working for West Ham – that’s a step too far. How would that look if it becomes public”?

And the fact that she did not disclose the work is, I think, the heart of the matter.  Did she have a clause in her contract – or was there a separate agreement - that talked about disclosing conflicts of interest?  That would be something I expect to see in all major public sector procurements (and in my consulting career I’ve personally insisted people signed it, up to and including Permanent Secretary / CEO level).  But in any case, it would have been wise to disclose the offer, and not doing so puts her in a much more vulnerable position.

On the other hand, the fact West Ham say she won the work for them through a competitive process helps a bit. And they thought she had cleared her involvement with OPLC.  But that, I’m afraid, doesn’t overcome the fundamentals of her non-disclosure and apparent / potential conflict of interest.

(One thing I don’t understand is how Knight could be paid for this work anyway – is she a contractor rather than an employee?  I guess she must be, because I don’t see how an employed public servant could be paid for additional consulting work).

So here are my predictions.  Ms Knight and West Ham may well have not broken any laws.  No-one will go to prison.  Equally, West Ham may struggle to sue the Sunday Times for libel as they have acted in the public interest through their factual disclosure (how they got the information and the work of the private detectives might be a different matter).  But the actions of West Ham and Knight, while not illegal, appear to be against the spirit of transparent public procurement processes.

This is the OPLC statement.

'The company had no knowledge of this work and no permission was given to undertake it. This individual had no involvement whatsoever in our stadium process.'

But, despite this, my feeling is that the competitive process will have to be re-run.  But I could be wrong....

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