THE Sheriff of Chester accused the Tory-led council of intimidation after a watchdog backed his right to speak out over the controversial sale of County Hall.

Labour’s Cllr Reggie Jones is now free to speak out after the Standards for England watchdog cleared him of defaming the council’s chief lawyer Simon Goacher in a letter to the Press and a motion.

Mr Goacher made an official complaint after Cllr Jones of Blacon alleged ‘a catalogue of financial and legal bad practice’ in the authority’s handling of the sale of County Hall and purchase of HQ following an auditor’s report.

Cllr Jones has since found a stray print-out of an email dated March 17 in which deputy council leader Les Ford told his Tory group he had ensured ‘our officers put pressure’ on the Labour group to withdraw the motion.

Just two days earlier Mr Goacher sent an email to Labour leader Cllr Derek Bateman challenging the phrase in the motion ‘a catalogue of financial and legal bad practice’ and asking him to withdraw or amend it.

Cllr Jones commented: “It is my strong opinion the culture and ethos within the council is dominated by intimidation of anyone speaking out and many people have lost confidence in the council’s ability to deal with matters in a balanced way.”

Cllr Jones is now demanding an apology from Mr Goacher and co-complainant Julie Gill, head of resources, due to the stress the investigation caused him and his family.

Dismissing the case, Steve Bannister, for Standards for England, said: “I do not think it is possible to construe his letter or the motion as being personally disrespectful of officers even if by implication it challenges some aspects of their performance, as indeed does the report.”

He said Cllr Jones had a right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Council spokesman Ian Callister said: “Council officers certainly did not attempt to dissuade Cllr Derek Bateman, opposition leader, from putting the notice of motion in an attempt to stop debate.

“They did so simply because the wording of that notice of motion was inaccurate, distorted the findings of the district auditor and was potentially defamatory to certain officers.”

He added: “We would stress that the Standards Board decision is not a legal ruling on the issue of defamation. That is not within their jurisdiction.”