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This is Gloucestershire
Tuesday, January 27, 2009, 12:44
A local authority accused its former managing director in the High Court today of “fraudulent or negligent misrepresentation” and “deceit” by withholding details of her medical history when she applied for the job.
Cheltenham Borough Council is suing Christine Laird for more than £1 million, claiming she concealed her depressive illness and the fact she had been taking anti-depressants for several years.
“As a result, the council was wrongly advised that she was medically fit for the job and it proceeded to implement its decision – reached by a narrow 18 to 17 majority – to employ her,” Tim Kerr QC told Mr Justice Hamblen in London.
“In consequence, the authority sustained loss and damage of just over £982,000.”
Mrs Laird, 52, of Lincoln Green Farm, Lincoln Green Lane, Tewkesbury, vehemently denies the allegations and, in a hearing set for up to seven weeks, contests the council’s claim that she is liable to pay the money, plus interest bringing the total to over £1 million.
She says that, in any event, she does not have assets to meet the claim, but the council says it “does not accept she is impoverished”.
Mrs Laird had been working for another council as group director of community services for two years before she applied for the top job of managing director at Cheltenham, advertised in the salary range £63,000 – £79,000.
She secured the post in February 2002, but was absent on full pay from June 2004 and left the job in 2005.
Her time at the council was marked by a series of bitter disputes with the authority and its Liberal Democrat leader, Andrew McKinlay, with allegation and counter-allegation of inappropriate, unhelpful, obstructive and bullying conduct.
Mrs Laird filed 25 official complaints to the watchdog Standards Board for England, of which only one was upheld.
She also filed an application for a restraining order banning Cllr McKinlay from entering the first floor of the council headquarters, where she had an office, but this was later withdrawn.
Mrs Laird also pursued separate legal claims against the council and Cllr McKinlay, but failed and was landed with costs bills totalling more than £90,000.
Cheltenham’s current chief executive, Andrew North, said before today’s hearing: “Deception on a job application simply can’t be tolerated.
“Her appointment turned out to be disastrous for Cheltenham and this council’s reputation. Overall she was off sick one day in every two.
“We believe we have a duty to local taxpayers to recover as much of this money as possible.”
He said the council was treating Mrs Laird “in exactly the same way as we would treat anyone else who seeks to take advantage of the council by unlawful means”.
If the council did not pursue her through the courts, it could be argued that it was not doing its job properly, sending out the signal that anyone could mislead the authority on their CV or job application and get away with it, Mr North said.
Mr Kerr told the judge that part of the sum claimed against Mrs Laird was the projected £450,000 cost to the council of her ill-health pension entitlement.
In its written statement of claim, the council says that, in filling in her pre-employment questionnaire, Mrs Laird replied “No” to the question “Do you see yourself as disabled?”
Asked whether she enjoyed good health, she replied “Yes”.
The council says she failed to disclose that she had suffered three bouts of moderate depressive illness since May 1997 and had taken time off work.
As well as the pension payments, its schedule of loss includes £96,000 legal costs still due from previous court proceedings and £175,000 for covering for Mrs Laird while she was off sick.
A spokesman for Mrs Laird today said: “The contract was started well before a medical form and after three days of intensive interviews and tests it was a done deal before she was even sent a form.
“She did work to sort out parking charges on the day she was offered the job and we’ll have evidence to prove that.”
For more on this story don’t miss tomorrow’s Gloucestershire Echo newspaper.