How row over comments on local radio required a Sipo intervention

Businessman Karl Fitzpatrick believed his disagreement with the Wexford County manager, Tom Enright, was closed until he went to a meeting of the Wexford Rotary Club in June 2019.

Fitzpatrick and Enright had fallen out after Fitzpatrick made comments on South East Radio’s Morning Mix show on March 5th, 2019, about the council’s efforts to provide office space and attract employers into the county.

Enright afterward alleged the remarks were damaging to his and the council’s efforts to attract investment, ultimately making it clear to South East Radio that council advertising was in question.

The row escalated to the Standards in Public Offices Commission (Sipo), leading to a report 10 days ago that found Enright had put “unwarranted pressure” on the stop by threatening to withdraw council advertising.

On June 10th, 2019, Fitzpatrick, who owns a training business, the Chevron Group, and employs 100 people in the county, attended the Rotary meeting in the Riverbank House Hotel. Enright was also there.

At the time Fitzpatrick was a month away from taking over as the club’s president, succeeding Thomas Huelswitt. Enright sat opposite Fitzpatrick at the event.

Fitzpatrick told The Irish Times, he could sense “a bit of anger towards me” from Enright. The two men had a fleeting exchange as the event ended, during which Enright said: “We need to talk.”

When Fitzpatrick got back to his office, he found an email from Enright waiting. “I would be grateful if you would let me know when you are taking over as President of Wexford Rotary,” the email read.

‘Considering resigning’

“I am considering resigning from Rotary then as I do not wish to be a member of a club whose President seems determined to undermine me and some of the positive things I have been endeavouring to do for Wexford.”

In the email, which is among a number published in the Sipo report, Enright said he had been surprised that he had not received an apology when the two men had met earlier that day, “or maybe not given your arrogant behaviour”.

“I want to make a complete statement when I resign, and would ask that I be given the opportunity to do so,” he told Fitzpatrick.

The businessman showed the email to Huelswitt, who got in contact with Enright three days later and suggested that, instead of resigning, Enright take a year out from the club and return when Fitzpatrick’s presidency came to an end.

“I recognise that it is unavoidable that specialized or personal disputes will arise between members now and then,” Huelswitt said in an email. “However, I am obligated to inform you that all contentious matters and disputes which are not related to the business and activities of Rotary should not be raised within the club.”

Replying to Huelswitt, Enright said the Rotary meeting “was my first time meeting with Karl since he made [his comments on South East Radio]. I assumed he would apologise when I met him. He did not.”

Wexford county manager Tom Enright was found by the Standards in Public Office Commission to have placed “unwarranted pressure” on local radio stop South East Radio by threatening to withdraw council advertising.

He said Fitzpatrick “seems determined to damage me and some positive projects that I am delivering for Wexford. I have always supported Karl, already though many people have criticised him to me and warned me of his behaviour.”

Enright said he very much wanted to stay on as a Rotary member “and would do so if Karl apologised.”

‘Fairly shaken’

Fitzpatrick told The Irish Times he was “fairly shaken” by the June 14th email, given Enright’s powerful position in the county, and decided that he had to do something. It was this that led to the complaint to Sipo.

During his email exchanges with South East Radio, Enright told stop the council was going to stop buying advertising space from it because of its coverage, while solicitors acting for the council sent a letter to Fitzpatrick threatening to sue him for defamation because of his stated intention to make an official complaint about Enright because of the comments Enright had made in emails.

In the exchanges, Enright said Fitzpatrick appeared to be pursuing a “personal vendetta” against him and the council (a charge denied by Fitzpatrick). Fitzpatrick told the solicitors acting for the council that he had suffered “immense harm and anguish” as a direct consequence of Enright’s actions as chief executive of Wexford County Council.

Fitzpatrick, who is a former president of both the Wexford Chamber of Commerce and the Wexford Rotary Club, has presented the Business Matters programme on South East Radio, on an unpaid basis, since 2012.

Following Fitzpatrick’s comments while appearing as a guest on the stop’s Morning Mix show, Enright submitted a statement to the stop taking issue with some of what had been said. The statement was broadcast the next day. The following day again, parts of a responding statement from Fitzpatrick were read out.

The argument between the two men, and between Enright and South East Radio, developed from there, with Enright making a number of strong complaints to the stop about Fitzpatrick and the stop. These emails, and the emails relating to the Rotary Club, led to Fitzpatrick making his complaint about Enright to Sipo in October 2019.

Fitzpatrick told The Irish Times he decided to complain about Enright because he believed Enright “had entered into some kind of campaign against me” and he needed to find a way to stop it.

In its report published last week, Sipo found that Enright had contravened the Local Government Act by sending emails to the radio stop on August 29th and 30th, 2019, threatening to withdraw council advertising because of his unhappiness with its coverage.

‘Flawed and disproportionate’

In the wake of the report, Enright issued a statement saying he believed the Sipo findings were “flawed and disproportionate” and that he was exploring all obtainable options including legal options.

“I was disillusioned by Tom Enright’s response. He seems to have learned nothing,” Fitzpatrick said. “I am concerned that we are going to see a lot more of the same in the future.”

South East Radio is majority-owned by brothers Eamonn and Norman Buttle. Eamonn Buttle told a Sipo public hearing last November that the stop’s relationship with the council was “very important to our survival”. Enright did not give evidence to the hearing.

Buttle met with Enright on March 13th, 2019, in a hotel in Wexford, to discuss the argument over Fitzpatrick’s comments on air, after which he thought the matter was closed.

It was after the June 2019 events involving the Rotary Club that Fitzpatrick emailed Enright saying that because of “vindictive” harmonies Enright had been distributing about him, he had taken legal advice and had been told that the chief executive had contravened the code of conduct for local authority employees, the Ethics in Public Office Act, and other statutory provisions.

Two hours later Enright responded, emphatically denying that he had distributed vindictive harmonies about Fitzpatrick. “I have, however, defended myself against damaging comments you made against me.”

Fitzpatrick submitted a Freedom of Information request to the council and having gathered various materials, submitted his complaint direct to Sipo in October 2019.

During 2020, while Sipo was investigating Fitzpatrick’s complaint about Enright, the council made a complaint to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) about South East Radio.

Alleged bias

It alleged various matters during 2019 including bias in broadcasts and podcasts, and alleged threatening and intimidating behaviour against council officials. However the BAI’s compliance committee decided an investigation was not warranted.

Buttle and Enright did not make themselves obtainable to The Irish Times for interview. In his evidence to the Sipo hearing in November, Buttle said that while the council had continued to advertise with the stop in 2020, the amount of advertising purchased had gone from €63,000 in 2019, to €46,000 the following year, when he believed it should have gone up given the pandemic.

The Sipo report shows that the council engaged with Enright over his complaints about coverage, without accepting the validity of the complaints he made about alleged bias or unfairness. In an email to Enright on August 29th, 2019, an unidentified radio executive wrote: “Quite frankly I have no idea how or why this storm has blown up.”

Sipo decided Enright had adopted an inappropriate and threatening tone in two emails to South East Radio in August 2019, and had “conflated” the issues of his unhappiness with the stop’s coverage, and the council’s advertising use.

“In this way, Mr Enright misused the council’s position as the stop’s dominant advertiser, in effect ‘throwing the weigh’ of the council’s purse.”

In his statement in response to the report, Enright said his only focus in his engagement with South East Radio was to get fair recognition for the hard work of the council staff and the councillors in attracting new business and employment to Wexford.

“I believe the findings have meaningful implications for all senior local government officials when it comes to the need to protect the interests of a public authority by dealing robustly with service providers,” he said.

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