Russell accused of bullying

AN MP has been accused of the "bullying, continual obstruction and harassment" of senior party colleagues who are also directors of a firm in which he is a major shareholder.

By Roddy Ashworth

AN MP has been accused of the "bullying, continual obstruction and harassment" of senior party colleagues who are also directors of a firm in which he is a major shareholder.

The allegations came as one of the board members of the Magdalen Hall Company - which owns the building in which Colchester MP Bob Russell's office is housed - resigned after complaining of the politician's "outrageous demands".

Liberal Democrat Mr Russell brushed aside the accusations as healthy debate which should have remained private within the firm.

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But all of the board members of the company - set up three years ago by local Liberal Democrats - have written to shareholders saying they have been brought "into conflict" with the MP.

They also warned Mr Russell intended to try and take control of the firm by "packing the board with his staff and friends".

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The board is currently made up of Colin Sykes, leader of Colchester Borough Council's Lib Dem group, Ted Crunden, chairman of the local Lib Dem constituency party, Wilma Sutton, party treasurer and Colchester's deputy mayoress, and Elizabeth Hall, the town's former mayoress.

The firm is owned by a group of local Lib Dem shareholders who three years ago raised enough cash to obtain a mortgage and purchase the former St Mary Magdalen Church Hall in Wimpole Road.

This was leased by the shareholders to the constituency party, who in turn sub-leased half of it to Mr Russell as the MP's offices.

In order to make sure links would be kept with the party, and a hostile takeover could not be mounted by future non-Lib Dem shareholders, it was agreed that the local constituency chairman and treasurer would sit as voting members on the board of directors.

Meanwhile the Parliamentary Commissioner at the time, Elizabeth Filkin, recommended that Mr Russell should not himself be a director of the firm in order to avoid accusations of a conflict of interest.

However Mr Russell has now called for an extraordinary general meeting of shareholders in which he proposes a special resolution that will mean the local party chairman and treasurer would lose their voting rights on the board.

After this, he proposes the current board members should be "rotated off" the board, two at a time at yearly intervals.

He also proposed that six new board members - including two of his employees - be appointed.

At the beginning of this month former local Lib Dem party chairman Ron Pascoe, husband of a former county councillor Pat Pascoe, wrote individually to the shareholders to announce he was quitting the board because he felt Mr Russell was attempting to take over the firm.

"Since incorporating the company, we have faced continual obstruction and harassment from Mr Russell," he wrote.

"When he has disagreed with us, the board has been subjected to a constant stream of autocratic emails and letters and demands for meetings," he added.

"Mr Russell may talk about democracy, but he is seeking to take control of your company. He wishes to take every decision, however minor, regarding the hall," he claimed.

"I am no longer prepared to spend the time required to do what should be routine over-seeing of a small company. Mr Russell will be delighted, as he has been seeking to replace the board for some time," Mr Pascoe alleged.

At the same time, the remaining board members also wrote to shareholders in a joint letter signed by all of them.

"Your board has always been careful to protect shareholders' funds and ensure that money has only been spent on appropriate projects," they wrote.

They added that although Mr Russell had originally agreed with the terms of the company, the board had since been brought into conflict with him as he seemed to have different attitudes towards the use of shareholders' funds.

"He has consistently put pressure on the board to pay for work that is not the company's responsibility. He also has ideas that would be detrimental to the value of all our shares," they claimed.

"Bob Russell is now trying to get his own way by packing the board with his staff and friends. You will notice that in the list of directors he wishes to appoint there is only one borough councillor (who is also his secretary) and no representatives of the wards," they alleged.

"If the MP gained control of the company in this way it would not be in the financial interests of other shareholders or in the best interests of the party in Colchester."

None of the directors were available or prepared to speak on the record about the matter.

However one, who declined to be named, stressed that there was no suggestion that Mr Russell had been in any way dishonest, but had instead different views to the board as to what shareholders' money should used for.

Mr Russell, the largest shareholder in the Magdalen Hall Company, said he felt it was unfortunate that private documents meant only for shareholders of a private firm should have become public.

"This is purely a domestic matter for all those who are shareholders. It is not even a matter for the party membership, because the building in which their headquarters are located is owned by a private company.

"I am not really going to comment - there are only 60 or 70 people who are shareholders. I think it is regrettable that one of them has chosen to divulge something which is private.

"I am not going to engage in debate with the media on an issue which is down to only a relatively small number of people, and all it's about is altering the structure of the company and whether directors should be elected.

"I think this is a storm in a tea cup. If people want to divulge confidential stuff there is not a lot I can do about it."

He added that the strength of language used in the letters to the shareholders was common to political parties and that he was "relaxed" about it.

"If people want to use strong language they are perfectly entitled to," he said.

"There is nothing in there I would consider to be anything other than healthy debate."

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