A former councillor found to have doctored a payslip in a bid to get money from a far-right group has been disqualified from becoming a councillor for three years.
At an adjudication hearing of Northern Ireland’s local government watchdog, Jolene Bunting was found to have breached the code of conduct.
Her actions were branded “dishonest, deliberate and for personal gain”.
It followed a complaint from Britain First leader Paul Golding.
He claimed Ms Bunting, a former independent unionist councillor, had asked him to cover the cost of a fine she received from Belfast City Council in 2018 for a publicity stunt at Belfast City Hall involving Britain First’s deputy leader at the time, Jayda Fransen.
He agreed to send her money, paying her sums of £50 and £65.
But the fine was, in fact, due to Ms Bunting exceeding the data usage on her council mobile phone.
The hearing of the Local Government Commissioner for Standards was told Ms Bunting had “amended her payslip in order to achieve financial gain from Mr Golding and Britain First”.
It heard she had sent Mr Golding an image of her payslip as proof of a £545 deduction that had been taken from her monthly council allowance – but the image had been altered to obscure words explaining that the fee was for the then councillor’s mobile phone.
Ms Bunting, who declined to attend the hearing, previously denied she was responsible for altering the image.
In an earlier interview with investigators, she denied the allegations against her.
‘Sought to blame others’
Assistant commissioner Ian Gordon, who made the findings against Ms Bunting, told the hearing: “Her actions were dishonest, deliberate and for personal gain. Her actions have brought her and her role as a councillor into disrepute.
“I’m satisfied that the respondent’s alteration of her payslip and discussions with Mr Golding are likely to diminish public trust in her position as a councillor.”
He added, however, that Ms Bunting’s actions had not brought Belfast City Council itself into disrepute.
Mr Golding told the BBC he intended to send a bundle of evidence – including the doctored payslip and text exchanges with Ms Bunting – to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
In her closing remarks Rachel Best, counsel for the deputy commissioner who investigated Ms Bunting, said the case “strikes at the heart of public confidence in councillors”.
Ms Best outlined “a plethora of aggravating factors” in the case, including Ms Bunting’s “deliberate personal gain at public expense by exploiting her position of councillor”.
She told the hearing Ms Bunting had brought herself into disrepute as a councillor, which had a wider impact on public confidence.
Ms Best said Ms Bunting had continued to deny the facts despite “clear evidence” and had challenged the investigation and adjudication until the end.
She added that Ms Bunting had “sought to unfairly blame others”, particularly Mr Golding, and that she had shown no remorse for her actions and offered no apology.
Ms Bunting had made a last-ditch attempt to halt the proceedings.
Referencing an email she sent to the watchdog on the final day of the hearing, Mr Gordon said he accepted that she had been under “significant financial pressure at the time”.
However, he said he had considered all of the evidence and found that she had breached the councillors’ code of conduct in a number of ways – including bringing her position into disrepute and improperly using her position to secure financial advantage.