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Sex attack Aberdeen councillor Alan Donnelly avoids the sack at standards hearing

Alan Donnelly outside Aberdeen Sheriff Court.
Alan Donnelly outside Aberdeen Sheriff Court.

A disgraced Aberdeen councillor has been suspended until March after being convicted of a sex attack at a prestigious dinner in the city.

A Standards Commission panel handed Alan Donnelly a year-long ban, but it has emerged the punishment will be backdated to when he was first placed on interim suspension pending the watchdog’s investigation.

The Torry and Ferryhill representative was found to have breached two parts of the councillors’ code of conduct as he sexually assaulted a man working at a civic event.

Convicted of the attack at Aberdeen Sheriff Court after a trial last December, Donnelly was suspended in early March after a number of complaints were made to the ethics watchdog.

Backdating the year-long suspension agreed by the panel today means he will be a full member of the council come March 3.

The 12-month ban is the maximum punishment available to the disciplinary panel, without stripping him of his elected office and forcing a by-election.

Donnelly – who was depute provost at the time of the assault – was found in breach of paragraphs 3.2 and 3.6 of the code – dictating respect and courtesy for colleagues and the public “at all times when acting as a councillor” and decreeing “bullying or harassment is completely unacceptable”.

Last December, Sheriff Ian Wallace convicted him of sexual assault, committed while attending a civic function in the city in November 2018.

Donnelly had denied the charges but was found guilty after trial of touching his victim’s face, hair and body and kissing him on the face.

He was sentenced to an eight-month supervision order, placed on the sex offenders register and ordered to pay his victim £800 in compensation.

Panel chairwoman Ashleigh Dunn said: “The panel considered whether a sanction of disqualification should be imposed.

“The panel noted only a conviction giving rise to a period of custody of three months precludes the holding of the office of councillor, in terms of the Local Government Scotland Act.

“The panel noted the sentencing sheriff in the respondent’s case, having heard the full account of the circumstances and its impact, had not considered the events which led to the conviction necessitated a custodial sentence.

“The panel is of the view, while the respondents conduct was entirely unacceptable and would have been distressing and disturbing for the victim there was no evidence to show the respondent’s conduct was anything but a one-off incident.

“The panel noted the respondent had been a councillor since 2007 and had not previously been the subject of a referral to the Standards Commission.

“In the circumstances the panel did not consider disqualification an appropriate sanction.

“The panel determined therefore the sanction should be a suspension and was off the view that, in order to reflect how wholly inappropriate the respondent’s behaviour had been, the maximum suspension of one year should be imposed.”

Various delays in holding the hearing, including due to its rescheduling when Donnelly contracted coronavirus last month, means he is no longer on the sex offenders register.

The disgraced councillor did not attend the online hearing, with his legal representative Karen Cameron moving for an adjournment until January.

Her reasons for the request, subsequently rejected by the panel, were that Donnelly was in ill health and that she had only been hired on Wednesday night after her client had fallen out with his previous solicitor.

Donnelly then went unrepresented throughout the hearing, as Ms Cameron withdrew due to not having enough time to prepare for the case.

He told The P&J: “I am disappointed that my solicitor was not able to put forward my position at today’s hearing .

“I will be reflecting upon the decision with my solicitor on Monday and will make no further comment until after that meeting.”

The ethical standards commissioner, through Martin Campbell, had pushed for disqualification – which takes effect automatically if a councillor is jailed for three months.

Mr Campbell told the panel: “There might well be quite a gap in conduct which the public would consider unacceptable for a councillor which would not result in a custodial sentence.

“There is a lot of quite serious conduct going through the criminal courts that would not result in a custodial sentence.

“There’s a presumption against sentences under one year so the code can still, in our submission, act as a remedy which would not trigger the legislation that removes councillors if they receive a custodial sentence of a certain length – but does cover behaviour which just isn’t in keeping with an effective ethical framework.

“A lot of  offences aren’t going to result in custodial sentences and I think that would probably surprise the public.”

The ethical standards commissioner called two witnesses for examination at the hearing, including council co-leader – and Donnelly’s former group leader on the council – Douglas Lumsden.

Another man, who hosted the event where the assault took place, also gave evidence.

The ethical standards commissioner’s case was to highlight Donnelly had been attending in his capacity as a councillor.

Having been invited as one of the leaders of the political groups on the council, Mr Lumsden had asked the then depute provost to go in his place.

Donnelly’s host said he had invited a councillor to attend, so expected a councillor in his stead.

The council is duty bound to pay Donnelly during the suspension

There has been outcry from some quarters at the continued pay of Donnelly since his March suspension, but the local authority is legally required to award him his salary.

While barred from attending meetings, he was still able to answer constituent queries and raise issue with officers during his exile.

It has been confirmed that Donnelly’s salary will continue to be paid between now and his March return.

A council spokesman said:  “We note the decision of the Standards Commission. Councillor Donnelly will remain suspended for one year.

“Councillor Donnelly has been suspended after a full investigation and decision by the Standards Commission.

“While suspended, Councillor Donnelly will continue to receive his full pay.

“This is a legal requirement and not a decision of the council.”